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Perspective | How the Praxis test and licensing affect STEM teacher quality

Welcome to our monthly feature on EducationNC called the NC STEM ScoreCard, written in partnership with the NC Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center (SMT) and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

This month’s NC STEM ScoreCard continues to profile factors associated with STEM teacher quality, like STEM teacher success on the Praxis test and having fully-licensed math and science teachers. Last month, we looked at other statistics related to teacher quality, including salary, working conditions, and turnover. (If you’re interested in diving into more of our STEM ScoreCard topics, take a look here.)

Students at the ENC STEM summer program at NCSSM. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

STEM teacher success on Praxis qualifying examinations 

The Praxis II tests measure the academic skills and subject-specific content knowledge needed for teaching. Praxis tests in elementary education, middle grades, and high school science and mathematics are required of individuals seeking to enter the teaching profession in North Carolina. The North Carolina State Board of Education approves the qualifying “cut scores” for all Praxis tests as part of the teacher certification process required by the state. 

The Praxis data shared here is the latest data currently available from the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Of note, the declines in Praxis pass rates shown below might be attributable to a change in policy and not to more salient variables such as quality of preparation, changes in test difficulty, or academic quality of teacher candidates. 

More recently, DPI has adopted a three-year cohort model to measure pass rates. This new model is very likely to present a better picture of data trends for qualifying examinations across the state in the future, and upcoming editions of the NC STEM ScoreCard will feature the Praxis II cohort analysis.

The percentage of teachers attempting final licensure exam (PRAXIS II) who achieved:

— a qualifying score in Chemistry was 66.7% in 2011-12, but comparable data is not available in subsequent years.

— a qualifying score in Physics is unknown since the number taking the exam is too few to report.

— a qualifying score in Middle Grades Mathematics declined 46.8% from 2011-12 to 2013-14

— a qualifying score in High School Mathematics declined 29.5% from 2011-12 to 2013-14

— a qualifying score in Middle Grades Science declined 2.4% from 2011-12 to 2013-14 

— a qualifying score in High School Science declined 9.3% from 2011-12 to 2013-14 

— a qualifying score in Biology declined 27.7% from 2011-12 to 2013-14

— a qualifying score in Earth Science declined 40.4% from 2011-12 to 2013-14

Students taught by fully-licensed mathematics and science teachers

Over the past decade, states across the country have taken steps to strengthen their licensure requirements. In addition, for the first time ever, the federal government mandated in No Child Left Behind (but with little power of enforcement) that fully-licensed teachers be in every classroom to teach all children. Research has consistently shown that teachers who are fully licensed in the subjects they are teaching are more effective (meaning students have higher achievement results) than those who are not. However, states — including North Carolina — continue to allow teachers to teach subjects for which they are not licensed to teach. This is alarmingly so in middle grades and high school mathematics and science in North Carolina.

Middle Grades Math: 31.6% of all middle grades math students in NC, or 113,858 students, were taught by less than fully-licensed math teachers in 2014-15

High School Math: 25.3% of all high school math students in NC, or 137,448 students, were taught by less than fully-licensed math teachers in 2014-15

Middle Grades Science: 36.5% of all middle grades science students in NC, or 132,776 students, were taught by less than fully-licensed science teachers in 2014-15

High School Science: 37.6% of all high school science students in NC, or 169,332 students, were taught by less than fully-licensed science teachers in 2014-15


Rachel Clark assists students working on their ceramic projects. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

So, what are the challenges and opportunities to improve STEM teacher quality in North Carolina?

First, the policy and educational community should consider the apparent decline in Praxis II pass-rates on qualifying science and mathematics examinations required for teacher licensure. What are the causal factors? Is it related to student or program quality, or was the decline an artifact of a prior policy decision or an adjustment in the Praxis II tests?

Second, the high numbers of science and mathematics teachers who are not fully licensed in North Carolina pose a significant challenge, particularly geographically. According to Duke University researchers, non-licensed teachers are not distributed randomly across the state. Instead, non-licensed teachers are concentrated in high-poverty schools and classrooms.

Policies should be developed to incentivize a more equitable distribution of STEM teachers across North Carolina. The revised NC Teaching Fellows Program is one such policy “fix,” and we will take a look at that program in a future STEM ScoreCard.

Each section of the STEM ScoreCard is compiled by Charles Coble  of Teacher Preparation Analytics and edited by Yasmin Bendaas at EdNC. Keep up with the STEM ScoreCard, released monthly, here

Charles Coble

Charles R. Coble, co-founder & partner of Teacher Preparation Analytics, was Professor of Science Education for 23 years and for 13 years Dean of the School of Education at East Carolina University.