Fla. teachers failing & frustrated: Lawmaker files bill after historic failures on competency exam

Task force would examine fairness of tests

New legislation just filed is aimed at stopping teachers and aspiring teachers from walking out of Florida classrooms because they can't pass a state teacher competency exam, an exam many have questioned may be flawed to begin with.

“At no point here do we want to lower the bar of the quality of people who will be taking the exam, but we have to make sure we’re giving people a fair exam, said Democratic Florida Representative Robert Asencio of Miami.

The veteran law enforcement officer turned rookie lawmaker just filed a bill in response to the thousands of existing and aspiring Florida teachers who are repeatedly failing the state’s newly revised Florida Teacher Certification Exam (FTCE). The test, which consists of a general knowledge test and subject area exams, is mandated by the state in order to get a license to teach in the state.  The tests were revised a few years ago to better align with more rigorous students tests, according to a spokesperson with the Florida Department of Education.  However, since the revision, teachers have been failing the tests at unprecedented rates causing a crisis in Florida classrooms. 

“Whenever we have such a high failure rate we have to figure out what's going on,” Representative Asencio told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone.  In November 2016, LaGrone was first to expose how the revisions were resulting in failure rates that were up more than 30% on some portions of the exam in 2015 and 2016.  Over the last 15 months, she has reported on how these failures were impacting every level of the state’s education system.   Teachers working with a temporary license have been terminated despite being deemed effective or highly effective teachers by their principals.  In addition,  college of education programs have been experiencing dramatic drops in enrollment, college students aren't graduating on time and local school districts around the state, already struggling to fill positions, have been finding their vacant teacher slots grow because of these tests.

“Since I was a little girl, I've wanted to be a teacher,” said 22-year-old Joselyn Rivera. She walked the stage in May as an education major at the University of Central Florida.  But, by law, she can’t earn her diploma until she passes the state’s teacher test.  Despite meeting all her requirements in the college of education program and spending thousands of dollars on testing fees and study guides, Rivera hasn’t been able to pass the K-6 social science portion of the FTCE exam.  She’s on her seventh attempt already.

“It’s like a slap in the face,” she told us recently.

“It's a big problem, it's a big problem,” said University of South Florida College of Education Associate Dean Dr. David Allsopp.  We spoke with him more than a year ago when the college was experiencing historically low enrollment numbers, in part, due to repeated failures on the FTCE.  Today, the numbers are improving slightly but Allsopp attributes that improvement to the tens of thousands of dollars the college has invested in FTCE boot camps and one-on-one tutoring sessions.  USF even asked the state for data in hopes of understanding why so many of its students were failing the test, but Allsopp says their requests were stonewalled by the state.

“The cynic in me might say, 'yes that’s data they’re not interested in sharing with us at this time.' I don't know why,” he told us recently.

Representative Ascencio is now hoping the state legislature can help figure out what’s going on.  Part of his bill calls for the creation of an independent task force to examine whether or not the test is appropriately measuring teacher competency.

“Is it the quality of education that people are coming to the table with or is it the quality of the test?  That’s what we’re trying to figure out here,” he said.

Asencio also wants the Florida Dept. of Education to publish year-old versions of the test that are no longer being used.  The idea is older tests would help students better prepare for the exam.  Frustrated teachers who have repeatedly failed the exam say current study guides and prep material are outdated and not properly preparing them for the new tests.

Finally, Asencio is also asking the legislature to help ease the burden these tests are causing on examinees’ pocketbooks.  The test, which used to cost $25 per section to take, has increased 800% in less than a decade. 

Now, portions of the test cost up to $200 to take and retaking it can cost even more.  Florida’s teacher competency exam, administered by international testing giant Pearson Vue, is among the costliest teachers' tests in the country.   The Florida Department of Education just renewed its $25 million contract with Pearson to continue administering the exam for the next 3 years.

Though she is still struggling to pass the FTCE and earn her degree, Joslyn Rivera still has her eyes set on a future in a Florida classroom.

“Some days I tell my mom I can't do this anymore and other days I'm like, 'I can't give up,' ” she said.

One Florida lawmaker is working to make sure she and others like her, have a fair shot at getting in.

“Don’t give up hope. We need you, we need more of you and we want to fight for you,” said Representative Asencio.

A spokesperson with Florida's Department of Education says the state continues to stand by these tests.  An FDOE spokesperson tells us all revisions were made through a very detailed and thorough process and the department continues to monitor the tests and its outcomes.  When asked for comment regarding this newly filed legislation, agency spokesperson Cheryl Etters replied, "We do not comment on pending legislation."

 

 

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