Driven by Data: Using licensure tests to build a strong, diverse teacher workforce

Research Rundown Issue: August '21
Publisher: National Council on Teacher Quality
Date Published: July '21


To gain a better understanding of how teacher licensure tests impact entry into the profession, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) gathered elementary licensure exam data for teacher candidates from 38 states and the District of Columbia. They found that in states with a strong testing system, only 45% of elementary teacher candidates passed the licensure exams on the first attempt. Moreover, while 58% of white test-takers passed the exam on the first try, only 43% of test-takers of color did.

To gauge the impact that these licensure exam failures have on the “walk-away rate”—the proportion of test-takers who fail on their first attempt and do not retake the test—the researchers examined data from 24 states. They found that a quarter of the test takers that do not pass on their first attempt do not retake the test within 3 years. For test takers of color, more than a third do not retake if they fail on the first attempt.

The researchers offer several recommendations for state agencies and testing companies to help more teacher candidates pass the licensure exams without sacrificing quality, including:

  • Improving access to and use of the assessment data to help inform improvements,
  • Ensuring that coursework (not just test prep strategies) are preparing the teacher candidates for the exams, and
  • Exploring concerns around bias in testing.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

Minnesota was identified as a state that has a weak licensing testing system. NCTQ noted two specific weakness with the Minnesota Teacher Licensing Examinations (MTLE):

  • It does not separately test knowledge of each subject area: Combining multiple subjects on the MTLE—math, reading, and science—into one subscore makes it harder to identify weaknesses across candidates and provide targeted support on specific subjects.
  • The state does not make the cut score public: The minimum passing score (cut score) is supposed to align with the recommended scores from a formal standard-setting process. By not making the recommended cut score public, it makes it impossible for the public to know if the state is adhering to the recommended score or if they are lowering

Ultimately, because of the weaknesses of our teacher exams, the results shed little light on the performance of Minnesota’s teacher preparation programs. That said, one notable local finding is the significant variation in first-attempt pass rates for test takers of color. While one school has a first-attempt pass rate of just 40%, others range as high as 100%—demonstrating that there is room and potential to grow on this important metric.

Read the analysis