Saved by the bill
A new state law created to keep good teachers from being terminated over a controversial state licensing exam has saved the jobs of more than 1000 Florida teachers this school year, the I-team learned.
The Florida Teacher Certification Exam (FTCE), is a must-pass licensing exam for anyone who wants to teach in a Florida public classroom. A portion of the exam, called the General Knowledge Test or GKT, consists of four sub-tests that tests a teacher candidate’s general knowledge in math, English language, reading and writing. Florida law required teachers teaching with a temporary certificate pass the GKT within their first year of teaching.
However, after the GKT was made tougher in 2015, failure rates increased up to 30% on some portions of the exam forcing school districts around the state to terminate teachers who couldn’t pass the exam in time. The new law now gives new teachers more time to pass the tests.
As a result of the new law, Melissa Born who teaches 5th grade for the Collier County school district is keeping her job in the classroom this year.
“It’s definitely a relief,” she told us this summer. “If that legislation didn’t pass, I wouldn’t have a job this year,” Born said.
Born passed three of the four sections of the General Knowledge exam the first time she took it in January. But she has yet to score a pass on the essay portion of the test. Born, who teaches math and science, has taken and failed the essay portion four times.
“They don’t give any type of feedback, what am I doing wrong,” Born asked.
For two years, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone reported on how repeat failures on the test were causing concerns at every level of Florida’s education system. College of education programs saw their enrollments decrease, many school districts were depending on more long-term substitutes to fill classrooms while all school districts were left terminating teachers who hadn’t passed the GK test within their first year.
State education leaders insisted the changes were made to attract the best quality teachers however, the state's former Commissioner on Education, Pam Stewart, refused to sit down with us to talk about the test. Over the course of our investigation, we spoke with district leaders who raised concerns about how the state was putting too much weight on the test and not enough emphasis on a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom.
Last summer alone, LaGrone discovered more than 1000 teachers were terminated from their jobs for not passing portions of the exam. Those teachers included educators determined by their principals to be effective or even highly effective with students in the classroom.
As part of our ongoing series of reports, critics of the exam expressed questions about the validity and reliability of the test in determining the success of a teacher. In North Carolina and Indiana, questions about their state teacher tests forced education leaders to re-examine their tests and Pearson Inc, the controversial testing giant who administers the tests in those states and state teacher tests here in Florida.
Our series also exposed how costs to take the exam had increased 800% in a ten-year period with costs to retake the exam also going up. As a result of our series, the state lowered exam fees and retake fees by up to 70%.
As a result of the new law, school districts trying to battle an ongoing teacher shortage are feeling, at least, some relief. In Polk County, as of July, the new law helped the district keep 120 teachers in the classroom this year.
“That’s quite a big number, we’re ecstatic,” said district Human Resource Director Annissa Wilfalk. “We’re not out there having to recruit more teachers to fill in those holes."
In Palm Beach County, more than 200 teachers who would have been terminated last summer for not passing the GK exam, are keeping their jobs this year.
“It’s terrifying that one test can ruin a career for any of us,” said Melissa Born who’s still working to pass the essay portion of the exam but thrilled to know she now has two more years to do it. “Thank you for all your work and to everyone who came to you say this is an issue because if not, I wouldn’t have a job."