By Shelby Mullis and Hank Nuwer
Franklin Community High School science teacher William Travis Miles is a five-year classroom veteran, previously teaching biology at Shelbyville and Beech Grove high schools.
In 2014, Miles applied for an earth science position at FCHS. The corporation requested an emergency permit be issued to Miles because the vacancy was a top priority.
The Indiana Department of Education charges a $35 fee for an emergency license. An emergency license is issued when there is an issue with a credential.
Miles is now on his second emergency license. Why? He has failed two attempts to reach the 220 passing score of the Pearson Education Inc. Indiana CORE content area assessment for secondary education earth/space science.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett decided to stop using the Educational Testing Service (ETS) Praxis II exam in 2013. The Praxis test had a high rate of passing for Indiana test takers.
Not so with Pearson, one of the wealthiest publishing companies in the world.
With money from holdings, textbooks, study guides and teacher tests, Pearson can afford generous dole-outs to political parties and even to educational institutions such as colleges.
About half of all state applicants have failed content area tests, a requirement for Indiana educators to qualify for licensing in a specific subject.
Pearson’s four tests cover early childhood, elementary, secondary and preschool-12. There are 100 questions that must be answered in 105 minutes.
The Indiana Department of Education acknowledges a huge drop in awarded licenses since 2012-2013. That academic year, about 6,000 licenses were awarded. In contrast, a mere 3,800 licenses were awarded in 2014-2015. And 2015-2016 was on track for a similar number of awards.
Why are so many prospective educators and teachers transferring from another state failing the Pearson licensure exam?
The issue of a 50 percent failure rate is one that educators across the country are concerned about but few wish to discuss publicly. Calls and emails to four Ball State University Education Department and Butler University faculty members were not returned.
For this article, more than 10 attempts were made to contact Coordinator of Educator Licensing Janet Andriole and other DOE staffers. No calls and only one email were returned, and she failed to respond to a request to fact-check this story. Test takers on several Internet listservs expressed frustration that their calls and letters were similarly ignored by the licensing people.
In a story in The Terre Haute Tribune-Star, Daniel Altman, Indiana Department of Education spokesman, said, “the department has heard the concerns and is working to address them.”
“It’s something we’re working on proactively with Pearson and the state Board of Education to mitigate that drop in licensure testing pass rates,” Altman said.
A call to Pearson was answered, but a representative declined to arrange an interview and sent a reporter to its webpage. A look at Pearson’s web page shows one absolute fact. Indiana’s Core testing generates cash flow for Pearson. Every test taken and retaken by failed test takers means a basic fee ranging from $38 to $125 or more depending on the test – and often additional fees charged by testing centers. Failing that test seven or more times therefore can cost a candidate around $800, and that number balloons and looms even larger when you consider that these candidates have already paid upwards of $90 for an e-text and much more for a hardcover textbook.
“The earth science exam [administered by Pearson] was quite conceptual,” Miles said. “If you memorized facts and vocabulary, you got hammered on the test.”
Miles went into the exam expecting to pass, but received a 211 out of the minimum 220 points established as the “cut score” (minimum passing score).
Miles said the biology exam, administered by Praxis II, focused on certain basic principles of biology.
“It didn’t delve into any topic really strongly,” Miles said. “You had to know specifics, but you didn’t have to know total specifics – something so in depth you had to write an essay on.”
Patricia Medlock, an Indiana public school educator of 29 years, expressed frustration over the new exam in defense of her own son in a public online forum.
“Please advise me on how to counsel a 22-year-old young man on why he has spent upwards of $160,000 on a four-year degree from an accredited Indiana university, graduating Magna Cum Laude, in order to become a high school science teacher and cannot pass the required content test after three attempts,” Medlock said.
Miles said the test is tailored for a graduate student with a specific content area.
The DOE was barraged with complaints from disgruntled test takers, some of whom had to take the expensive test six or seven times.
Part of the frustration was that Pearson for some time did not issue a study guide tailored for the state of Indiana. In addition, many education departments require their students to purchase Pearson textbooks, the reasoning being that Pearson textbooks might be more likely to feature the same content as its licensure test.
Perhaps because the switch to Pearson was not instituted by Gov. Mike Pence’s administration, Indiana legislators remained long silent on the Pearson controversy in spite of urgent pleas for reduced cut scores from their constituents who had failed the test.
Finally, on Nov. 5, 2014, the Indiana State Board of Education addressed concerns regarding the licensure exam at its executive meeting.
According to board meeting minutes, board member Cari Whicker said she had been hearing concerns from elementary teachers and principals. They told her they had excellent student teachers who could not pass the exam.
Whicker maintained that “teachers are having a real tough time passing this new, more rigorous test with the current cut scores.” She said she wants “the licensure testing to be rigorous, but the cut scores as they are cause concern.”
Because live test-taker data information was not available at the time of the Nov. 5, 2014 meeting, the board decided to revisit the issue at a later date.
That delay stretched to 10 months while prospective teachers and their college education professors complained.
Risa Regnier, assistant superintendent of School Support Services, offered a presentation to the board at the Aug. 5, 2015 meeting, recommending a significant lowering of cut scores for specific teacher licensing exams.
On Oct. 2, 2015, the board announced the final approval of new passing scores for five licensure exams:
- 014 Early Childhood Generalist Subtest 1: Reading and English Language Arts
- 015 Early Childhood Generalist Subtest 2: Mathematics
- 016 Early Childhood Generalist Subtest 3: Science, Health, and Physical Education
- 017 Early Childhood Generalist Subtest 4: Social Studies and Fine Arts
- 045 Science — Life Science
The state must wait at least 90 days before implementing the new scores, according to an Oct. 2, 2015 press release. The new passing scores will be effective for these content-area tests taken on or after Dec. 15, 2015.
“Once the new passing scores are implemented, candidates can obtain the minimum scaled passing score by answering fewer multiple-choice items correctly than was required under the passing standard initially established by the Indiana State Board of Education,” the press release said.
In the meantime, chat groups all over the Internet have disappointed teachers railing that the change has been too little and too late in coming. In fact, one frustrated test taker who lives in northern Indiana has a solution of her own.
“I am thinking of applying for my license in Michigan since I am only 20 minutes to the border,” she confided to other failed test takers in a public chat group.