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Aspiring educators will soon take a revised certification exam that school leaders hope will make it easier for would-be teachers to pass and will help communities facing shortages fill vacancies. 

A new version of the Praxis Core places less emphasis on algebra and geometry, with both sections now counting for less than a third of the math section score, and provides a formula sheet for more advanced equations. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the test, rolled out changes last month. The two subjects formerly accounted for 50 percent of the score.

To become certified, teacher candidates with a score below 21 on the ACT are required to pass the test, which also assesses candidates on their reading and writing skills. An April news release from ETS said the changes came after a review of the test by teacher preparation faculty.

A special report in partnership with The Hechinger Report and Mississippi Today on the state’s teacher shortage explored how some teacher candidates struggle to pass the exam, failing despite multiple attempts. 

Clyde Reese, ETS’ director of Data and Validity Research for Praxis, said the goal is to shift away from measuring candidates on their recall of formulas. Previously, test takers might have had to go into exam day having memorized the formula for how to the find the area of a rectangle. Now, the goal is to see if students can use a provided formula to work through the problem. The revised test will also emphasize candidates’ abilities to make sense of a data set.

But Reese says scaling back the focus on geometry and algebra doesn’t mean the ETS is downplaying the importance of advanced math. “For many students the teacher is the role model. Even if they’re not going to be teaching mathematics, it’s important for teachers to have a certain level of mathematics reasoning, so student see mathematics as a critical skill,” he said.

ETS also teamed up with Khan Academy to offer free online test prep. Reese says the partnership aligns with the group’s wider goal of diversifying the pipeline for teacher candidates.

Adrienne Hudson, executive director of the education nonprofit Regional Initiatives for Sustainable Education (RISE), helps tutor candidates for the Praxis, particularly non-certified school employees who want to become teachers. Hudson said she’s optimistic about the revised test.  In the past, she said, “You would hear 10 people just took this math test and only one or two of them passed. Now, it’s the opposite.”

At least 19 percent of teachers were uncertified in seven Mississippi Delta districts, according to an analysis earlier this year by Mississippi Today and Hechinger. But Hudson said more steps are needed to stanch the region’s teacher shortage.

While certification exams can be a roadblock for some educators, addressing pass rates is only one prong in combating escalating vacancies, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, an analyst with the Learning Policy Institute. Teacher turnover also requires an urgent response.

“That’s a major concern that hasn’t gotten as much attention as new teachers coming into the field,” she said.

Long-term, solving the staffing crisis will require improving workplace conditions and curbing deterrents, like low pay and student loan debt, Carver-Thomas said. Teacher residency programs, in which first-year teachers are mentored by and co-teach with master teachers, can help teachers stay in the classroom longer. 

The Magnolia State is already working on the issue. The state’s Department of Education launched a state-run teacher residency program in four districts, one in the Mississippi Delta, earlier this year. Meantime, state education officials said they’ll monitor the results of the new exam to see how the pass rates compare to the previous version.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

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