For more than two decades, the exams Massachusetts teachers and administrators must take to secure their professional licenses have been marred by gaping racial disparities in pass rates, driving a disproportionate share of educators of color out of the profession while raising questions about potential racial bias in the exams.
But on Tuesday, education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley will formally propose a potential fix: He is seeking to allow teachers who repeatedly fail their exams to receive a license based on their actual work experience — vetted by an expert — instead of their test scores. His proposal would also allow educators in some instances to take another licensing test offered in 26 other states.
The changes, if approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in the coming months, would be in place on a trial basis for three years.
“We are trying to see if there is a better way to identify potentially great teachers,” said Riley in an interview Monday.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks on the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure has been the communication and literacy skills test, which most aspiring teachers must pass before the state will even review their licensing application. While 83 percent of white candidates passed that test in the 2017-18 school year, a little more than 60 percent of Black and Latino candidates did, according to the most recent data.
Riley is proposing the changes as many districts statewide have been struggling to build a workforce that reflects their student populations. In Boston, for instance, people of color account for 85 percent of student enrollment, but only 42 percent of the teaching force, and in Springfield, students of color represent 90 percent of school enrollment, but teachers of color make up only 19 percent of the workforce, according to state data.
Many educators have long argued the testing requirements for a license further restrict an already narrow pipeline for recruitment — one fed by teaching colleges that are overwhelmingly filled with white students.
Under the state’s 22-year-old licensing system, most educators must pass two exams — a communication test and another tied to their area of expertise — to gain a license. However, the state allows a limited number of unlicensed educators to teach under waivers for a year or longer if the school district can prove difficulty finding a better-suited licensed candidate.
So far, Riley’s proposal, which will be subject to a 60-day public comment period, has received mixed responses.
In Boston, where 128 educators have been terminated over the last five years because they were unable to secure professional licenses, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius viewed Riley’s proposal as a positive step forward. About half those let go were Black or Latino.
“Knowing that a single standardized test doesn’t always guarantee quality, I support strategies that remove barriers and help us meet our goal of recruiting and retaining an excellent and diverse teaching corps,” Cassellius said in a statement.
But Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank, said the proposal could ultimately weaken teacher quality.
“The state’s MTEL teacher test and licensure guidelines have long been a model that led to historic gains on virtually every national and international measure of academic achievement,” Gass said in a statement. “It’s disgraceful that Massachusetts policy makers would even consider dumbing down expectations for teachers, which will only further accelerate the state’s now decade-long academic decline on the nation’s report card, not to mention widen achievement gaps.”
Across the country, many states have been re-examining their licensing systems in response to evidence suggesting testing requirements might be keeping too many educators of color out of classrooms. The issue has taken on more urgency in recent years as a growing body of research has shown that achievement can rise in classrooms when students of color are taught by teachers of similar demographics.
In California, for instance, the Legislature is weighing a bill that would replace its communications skills educator licensing exam amid concerns of racial bias.
Riley’s proposal is part of a broader effort to help districts diversify their workforces, which includes creating grant opportunities for recruitment initiatives and programs to entice high school students to pursue teaching careers. State higher education officials also are working on efforts to increase the diversity of teacher-training programs.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he supports Riley’s efforts to temporarily loosen the educator testing requirements. “We know there are a lot of bright kids who don’t do well on standardized tests,” he said.
Tyler Fox, an attorney who represented a group of minority Boston teachers who unsuccessfully sued the state a decade ago after they could not pass the licensing exams, said it was good to see the state finally acknowledging a problem with the tests, but that the proposal doesn’t go far enough. Permanent change is needed now. “It seems like they are being tepid about it and trying to read the political waters,” he said.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, also faulted the proposal for being too limited. She would like to see reliance on the licensing exams permanently scaled back or eliminated, noting that supervised classroom experience is more informative, especially in determining whether a teacher can handle disruptive students. “A test is the wrong way to measure the quality of an educator’s work and their competency to become a successful teacher,” Najimy said.