Emma Lambert easily passed the writing portion of the basic skills test required of Pennsylvania teaching candidates.

The math section took a few more attempts.

As for reading? She failed 12 times before hiring a tutor. At lucky 13, she finally passed the test.

» READ MORE: The declining pipeline of educators-to-be has experts worried the teacher shortage will only get worse.

All in all, the whole venture, including a tutor for math, cost the then-East Stroudsburg University student nearly $3,000, and more than three years later she’s still frustrated the state placed so much emphasis on standardized tests — almost upending her career plans.

At least for the next three years, Pa. students will no longer have to pass the so-called basic skills tests in reading, math, and writing, or meet the requirement through an alternative, to enroll in teacher preparation programs. Facing a teacher shortage crisis, the state legislature in June agreed to waive the requirement, giving officials a chance to study whether the test really improved the quality of teaching candidates or just deterred students from pursuing the profession.

The move comes amid a sharp decline in the number of students completing teacher education programs in Pennsylvania. In 2019-20, just 5,553 people completed the programs, down 53% from 2011-12, and the number of in-state graduates who then go on to get their certification is even more startling: There were just 5,440 in 2020-21, according to state Education Department data, down from 15,031 a decade earlier.

For Lambert, the tests acted as a barrier and were hardly reflective of her talents: She graduated in 2019 with a 3.6 GPA, aims to finish in the spring with a master’s degree in — no irony lost — reading education, and she’s in her fourth year of successful teaching at Stroudsburg Area School District, the last three at Hamilton Elementary in Sciota in Monroe County.

“It gave me such anxiety,” said Lambert, 25, of East Stroudsburg. “We teach kids that they are more than a test, but it did not feel that way to me.”

The requirement, passed in 2014, rose out of concern that too many prospective teachers were struggling to pass their certification exams, said Kerry Helm, the state department’s chief of the Division of Certification Services, Bureau of School Leadership and Teacher Quality.

» READ MORE: As the start of the school year looms, teacher vacancies remain. One Philly-area district may farm out its students to community college.

But there are workarounds: The education department allowed students with high enough scores on college entrance exams — the SAT or ACT — to be exempt. And a few years ago, the department began allowing students who got a “B” or better in courses where basic skills content was embedded to forgo the tests. But those courses have to be approved by the state, and less than half of Pa. teacher preparation programs offer them. Then the requirement was temporarily waived during the height of the pandemic, bringing hundreds more candidates into the pipeline.

Pennsylvania isn’t alone: Only 13 states now require the assessment, down from 25 in 2015, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. New Jersey is considering dumping it as well.

About this series
We know a lack of teachers strained so many schools this past year, but we wanted to hone in on why it was happening and how it could be helped. In addition to this story about the debate over the basic skills requirement, we’ve also written about the dwindling higher education pipeline, the ways some local school districts are coping, and one way to attract more teachers of color.

If you’re a teacher, student, parent or administrator who has a story to tell about how the teacher shortage has impacted you or your school, please contact staff writer Susan Snyder at ssnyder@inquirer.com or education editor Cathy Rubin at crubin@inquirer.com.

Does the basic skills requirement lead to better teachers?

Fewer than half of teaching candidates passed the most common version of the writing assessment on the first try in 2020-21, according to data provided by the state education department. In reading and math, they fared better. Nearly three-quarters passed reading on the first try and 82% the math. (Less than half passed another version of the reading, writing, and math assessments that fewer candidates took.)

» READ MORE: A new Pa law will make it easier for teachers from N.J. and other states to work here

Not all those who fail try again. The cost alone for the Praxis and PAPA tests could be a barrier for students with limited financial resources, said John Ward, dean of the college of education at Kutztown University. It costs $150 to take the three tests — each time.

“If they have to take it a couple of times, that’s $300, not to mention the stress,” Ward said. “For some students, that can be enough to say, ‘I’ll change majors.’”

And there’s no research studies, he asserted, that show the basic skills requirement has led to better teachers.

The Inquirer had asked the state department of education for a comparison of certification pass rates between 2013-14, the year the basic skills requirement was passed, and the most recent year available, 2020-2021, and saw no overwhelming pattern of improvement. For example, there are seven certification exams that fourth- through eighth-grade teachers take, depending on their subject areas. The pass rate went down in four areas and up in three, according to data provided by the education department.

While Helm agreed that nothing stands out as evidence that basic skills tests increased the chance of getting certified, both he and Tanya I. Garcia, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of postsecondary and higher education, cautioned that such a comparison is limited, and much more study is needed.

Too much, not enough, or just not right?

“It’s hard to argue that basic competency in reading and writing and math isn’t important for teachers. That’s something we agree on‚” said Pam Grossman, dean of Penn’s graduate school of education. “How to assess them and how to make sure we are getting good measures of those things has been more controversial.”

Critics have questioned why basic skills tests are necessary when students already must achieve a 3.0 GPA in their college course work, perform well as student teachers, and pass certification exams in content and pedagogy, typically during their senior year.

“To me, it’s kind of an overkill,” said Carissa Pokorny-Golden, director of the state education department’s bureau of school leadership and teacher quality.

Desha Williams, dean of the college of education and social work at West Chester University, said the waiver will give students who may have struggled with the basic skills requirement a chance to prove themselves. Students had to pass the tests typically by the end of their sophomore year or beginning of their junior year to be admitted into teacher preparation programs.

“This is just opening an opportunity for them to grow and to be able then to meet those requirements at the end of their program,” she said.

But not everyone thinks this is the best way to ease the teacher shortage.

“Quite often the response has been to widen the gate, lower the bar,” said University of Pennsylvania education professor Richard Ingersoll, an expert on America’s teaching force. “Of course if there are flaws in test questions, they ought to be corrected, but if we want to raise the stature and quality of teachers, getting rid of the entry tests that aren’t that hard to begin with isn’t the way to go.”

He questioned whether anyone would consider lowering the bar for becoming a doctor or a lawyer, and noted increasing teacher pay and improving working conditions are better strategies to ease the shortage.

“If someone can’t pass the Praxis to get into teaching, just what other occupations could they get into?” he asked.

» READ MORE: Where have all the substitutes gone?

Steven Delaporte, an elementary health and physical education teacher in Denville, N.J., who graduated from East Stroudsburg University in May, said the basic skills requirement is a necessary one, whether it’s measuring your specialty or not.

“Even though I’m in PE, if I have to correct a student’s grammar, I feel like I should be able to do that,” he said. “Having the higher basic content knowledge is something that should be required.”

Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, saw the waiver as a reasonable attempt to respond to the teacher shortage, but said it’s critical the department collects data to evaluate the impact and be ready to possibly re-activate or modify the requirement. The department should look at whether candidates are able to pass certification tests and get their licenses as well as assess how effective they are in teaching students.

They should track where they go to work and how they do on teacher evaluations and whether they stay in teaching, she said.

Grossman agreed the quality of study is critical. “If they don’t design a good study, then three years from now we won’t know any more than we do right now.”

In the meantime, Brooke Langan, dean of East Stroudsburg’s college of education, believes the department should continue to require that students demonstrate basic skills not with tests, but through course work. East Stroudsburg is one of the schools that offers department-approved courses in reading, writing, and math that students could opt for instead of taking the test.

“I am not a firm believer in the standardized test,” Langan said. “I am a firm believer in being able to showcase competencies.”

Some warned that standardized tests, long criticized as being unfair, especially to students of color, only discourage potentially strong candidates.

“Many times, tests, the way they are designed, have biases,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, “and as we look at biases in testing when evaluating children, I would think the same is true when evaluating adults.”

James Earl Davis, interim dean of Temple University’s college of education and human development, said the standardized tests have unfairly kept worthy candidates out of the teacher pipeline.

“This doesn’t mean I’m endorsing having underqualified people in the classroom,” he said. “I’m begging the conversation about what do we mean by quality and excellence that we can get to beyond standardized testing.”

Pottstown School District Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez said the state can no longer afford such a requirement. With so few candidates in the pipeline, classrooms are already staffed by teachers on emergency certification struggling to make it.

“Am I worried about lowering the bar? Yes,” he said. “But I think that is the minor consideration. We need to do everything and anything we can to make the road easy.”

What happens next?

Education department officials plan to more closely compare the certification test results of students who don’t have to meet the basic skills requirement with those that did, Helm said. They also will assess whether the waiver brings more teachers into the pipeline.

Initial results look encouraging, Garcia said. Enrollments in teacher preparation programs, at least anecdotally, are up this year, she said.

At Kutztown, the move already had an impact, said Ward, the dean.

Over the summer, the school was able to admit into the teacher preparation program some community college transfers who hadn’t yet passed the basic skills test, he said. There were also about 50 Kutztown students, who either hadn’t taken the tests or hadn’t passed them, who were admitted, too, he said.

“I do think it will increase enrollment” over time, Ward said. “I would guess 10%.”

The waiver during the pandemic kept Bethany Coudriet’s education on track. The East Stroudsburg senior passed her reading test and was within points of passing her writing test. With a math disability, she failed that test twice. Her anxiety was building. But then Pennsylvania waived the assessments.

It still perplexes Coudriet, 22, that a standardized test score almost interfered with her career plans.

To Jacquelyn MacCorkle, 22, the state’s waiver will save her time and money. She would have had to stay in school another semester to take some courses to meet the basic skills requirement.

MacCorkle had struggled during the pandemic when classes were moved online and her GPA sunk to 2.3. But she then became more determined and made the dean’s list the last three terms. Now, her GPA is 3.0, and because of the waiver, she can be admitted into the teacher preparation program.

“I thought, ‘I’m not letting anyone stop me from pursuing my goal of becoming a teacher,’” she said.