At a recent Board of Education meeting in Orlando, the public was welcomed.
But when ABC Action News showed up seeking answers over a teacher certification test that thousands keep repeatedly failing, a department spokesperson tried to block our access to the boss.
“Don’t you go. I can provide you with a comment,” said Cheryl Etters, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education. Etters attempted to keep us away from Education Commissioner, Pamela Stewart who was standing just a few steps away from us after the meeting broke for lunch.
For nearly two years, we’ve been following the stories of frustrated examinees struggling to pass the Florida Teacher Certification Exam or FTCE. The must-pass teacher licensing exam has become a can’t pass nightmare for thousands of teachers and those who aspire to teach.
Deborah Quinn was teaching with a temporary certificate at a low-income South Florida elementary school for the last three years before she was let go this summer for not passing various portions of the FTCE, in total, 10 times.
“These are not tears of woe is me, these are tears of frustration,” said Quinn who had always dreamed of becoming a teacher but worked in the restaurant industry for nearly 20 years to pay the bills while her kids were young.
Quinn is one of more than one thousand Florida teachers who we recently discovered were terminated this summer for not passing the test. Since the test is mandated under Florida law, teachers who don’t pass within a few years are ineligible to teach. Some examinees resort to being long-term substitutes or in non-instructional roles while they continue to take the test and others leave the teaching industry altogether.
The Florida Education Association (FEA), the state teacher’s union and largest union in Florida is now voicing its concerns about failure rates after the organization released new state teacher shortage numbers. According to the FEA, as of this month, Florida’s teacher shortage stood around 4,000.
“Coupled with this exam it’s only going to get worse. It makes you a little angry and number two, we have to solve the problem,” said Joanne McCall, President of the FEA.
Until now, the FEA has stayed quiet about test failures which, we found, were still up more than 30% on some portions of the test. The battery of exams test a candidate’s general knowledge to subject area. The tests were revised and made tougher in 2015. According to the Florida Department of Education which oversees the tests, the FTCE was made harder to better align with more rigorous student tests. According to data provided by the state, in 2014 for example, 80% of first-time examinees passed the General Knowledge Math Test. One year later, after revisions, pass rates dropped to 57% leaving failure rates around 23%. On the elementary Language Arts & Reading test, failure rates increased 34% after revisions, improving just 2% last year.
“The reality is if you’re raising the bar and the test scores drop like that then you have a problem,” said McCall.
The state teacher’s union is joining lawmakers who are also now paying attention to the fallout from the revised tests.
“We walk into very dangerous territory to allow a test to be another factor on why teachers are leaving the classroom,” said State Representative Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from Broward County.
“It hit home with my best friend,” he said. This summer that friend, an English teacher in South Florida, failed the math portion of the FTCE General Knowledge test and was among the 1,000 teachers terminated from their teaching jobs.
“It should be alarming to every legislator within the state of Florida,” he said.
Jones is joining fellow Florida legislator Representative Robert Asencio (D) of Miami-Dade. In response to our series of reports detailing how the test has forced passionate teachers and aspiring teachers out of the industry, Asencio introduced a bill that would have lowered test fees for examinees and create a task force to study the exam’s validity. Costs to take each exam range from $125 to $200 and retakes cost examinees even more. Asencio’s bill never went anywhere. If re-elected, he plans on pushing for similar legislation this year.
“This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, this is a Florida issue,” Asencio told ABC Action News in a recent interview.
It’s an issue, leaders from Florida's Dept. of Education do not agree with but have refused to talk with us about on camera. Over the last year-and-a-half, our requests for interviews have resulted in only written responses.
At the board meeting in Orlando, we eventually caught up with Commissioner Pam Stewart who responded to our questions about high failure rates on the test by stating, “So you’re interrupting the 15-minute break for lunch, is that correct?”
Stewart was clearly frustrated by our questions.
“I’m interrupting your 15 minutes to have lunch so we can get answers for thousands of teachers who continue to struggle; frustrated and failing this test,” responded Reporter Katie LaGrone.
Stewart replied, “We can go on the record that you are rude enough to be able to interrupt me, is that right?”
In response to whether or not the department is concerned about the high failure rates that continue to result from the exam, Stewart responded, “We are so concerned about the quality of our teachers in the classroom every single day and we want to ensure... we have the highest quality teachers in front of our students because our students really need our best quality.” Stewart went on to say, “We’re doing what we can to ensure that we follow state law and that these teachers are passing these assessments that are required in order for them to be certified to be in the classroom.”
Following our tense exchange with Commissioner Stewart, we requested a more civil sit-down interview but our request was ignored. Several lawmakers and Florida’s Education Association will now examine the issue to determine if laws mandating the passage of this test as an eligibility requirement should be changed.