- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri education officials are proposing changes after test-takers struggled on new certification exams, particularly those for aspiring math and science teachers.

The proposed changes, which will be discussed Tuesday at a Missouri Board of Education meeting, include giving test-takers more time and fewer questions to answer on some of the exams. Fifty-five content tests measure readiness to be everything from classroom teachers to superintendents. On six of them, fewer than half of test-takers passed, newly released data shows.

Issues arose after the state switched certification exams in September. Instead of taking a test known as Praxis II, students now must fare well on a more rigorous assessment called the Missouri Content Assessment. Through April 12, more than 7,100 of the tests were taken.

Paul Katnik, an assistant commissioner for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, described some of the low pass rates as “not good for us and our state.” The drops were most profound on tests for math and science, subjects many districts struggle to find enough people to teach.

The pass rate for people seeking to teach middle school math dropped to 45 percent from 100 percent. Among those seeking to teach at the high-school level, the pass rate dropped to 19 percent from 72.9 percent for math, to 25 percent from 66.7 percent for physics, to 52 percent from 65.1 percent for chemistry, to 52 percent from 59.1 percent for general sciences and to 55 percent from 79.9 percent for biology.

On only a few of the tests, including the ones for aspiring librarians and Spanish teachers, did students fare better on the new test than the old one.

The decline in scores was expected because the tests were based on more rigorous new national education standards, said Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for the education department.

“The rigor of the standards has increased, so we needed to update our assessments, we needed to test differently,” she said. “We want to be sure teachers know the content very well so they can pass their knowledge on to their students.”

Diana Rogers-Adkinson, Southeast Missouri State University’s College of Education dean, said some students are struggling because schools didn’t have enough time to revamp their curriculums before the state rolled out the new tests.

“I think a lot of us are pretty frustrated,” she said, adding that her school’s curriculum changes take effect this coming fall.

Hap Hairston, the director of educator preparation for DESE, said people can still apply for teaching jobs without passing the test. If they get an offer, they can get a provisional certification that gives them two years to pass the certification exam.

But Rogers-Adkinson said a lot of districts won’t hire teachers who aren’t fully certified.

Other changes being considered by DESE are reconvening committees involved in the development of some of the math and science tests to ensure that the tests are measuring the right things. So far, the state isn’t recommending that the scores required to pass the exams be lowered, although that is an option in the future, Katnik said.

He said the state will continue to monitor scores as changes are made.

“If we see that numbers aren’t moving we will have to do something else,” he said. “If there is a change in numbers, we will know we have addressed the right thing. If not, we will know we need to do something more.”

Katnik said it wasn’t surprising that scores were lowest on math and science tests because the subjects are a weakness for the overall population. But he asked: “Where do you break that cycle of folks not being particularly strong in math and science? One way to do is have teachers that are great in math and science.”

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