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Becoming a teacher in Mississippi usually starts with a solid GPA going into one’s sophomore year of college and either a score of 21 on the ACT or a passing score on the Praxis Core teacher exam. Teacher candidates who can’t meet those requirements can’t enroll in the state’s schools of education.

In the past, this bar has been too high for many would-be teachers, especially those who come from high-need areas. And, as is the case nationwide, enrollment in the state’s schools of education has declined, despite shortages.

College students who graduated from low-performing high schools and adults working as long-term substitutes or teacher aides often struggle to pass the Praxis tests, even after multiple attempts. It’s a frustrating dilemma for high-poverty, rural districts desperate for trained teachers who will commit to staying for the long term, but who can’t get local talent past the front door.

Now, the district’s predicament has disappeared, at least temporarily: Because of the coronavirus, the state removed the testing requirements for teacher candidates until December 31, 2021. (Minimum GPA requirements still stand.) The waiver would allow more would-be educators to enter and move through the state’s teacher pipeline. It could also give added muscle to local efforts already underway in rural districts to recruit community residents to the classroom.

Adrienne Hudson, with the Delta-based nonprofit RISE, works with many Delta educators who are already in the classroom but haven’t gained admission to a teacher prep program to receive a standard 5-year license. Sometimes Mississippi gives these teachers a temporary license, allowing them time to meet requirements for certification. But those who can’t meet the standards to enter an education program before the license expires often continue in the classroom, despite their lack of attendance at a formal teacher training program, while receiving lower pay than their certified colleagues. If they can find better wages elsewhere, they often exit the classroom, leaving districts to start from square one.

“You can’t convince me that not having a teacher is better than having a teacher who is committed and passionate, and willing to learn on a long-term basis, just because they couldn’t pass a test.”

Adrienne Hudson, executive director of RISE, a Delta-based nonprofit

Related: How grassroots efforts are trying to solve the teacher shortage crisis

As an example, Hudson cited a lower elementary school in the Delta where none of the K-3 teachers are certified to teach. “You can’t convince me that not having a teacher is better than having a teacher who is committed and passionate, and willing to learn on a long-term basis, just because they couldn’t pass a test,” Hudson said. “Being a teacher is a test.”

But at least one group is concerned the waiver could lower standards. Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which pushes for toughening licensure standards, expressed disappointment with the move. An NCTQ review of state responses found that several state education departments are opting to give teachers an extra year to meet licensing requirements to account for disruptions from coronavirus. As of mid-April, Mississippi stood out as an exception among states that had taken action thus far, having fully suspended testing requirements, although the New York State Department of Education also announced it would waive testing requirements if testing sites remained closed beyond May 1.

Mississippi’s waiver is poised to make substantial waves. In the two months since the state announced the change, undergraduate enrollment in Jackson State University’s teacher program has doubled.

Roosevelt Shelton, the interim dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Jackson State, said undergrads aren’t the only ones benefitting from the change. Older millennials are taking up the opportunity, too.

Graduates of the historically black university who didn’t qualify for the teaching program before are signing up for its post-graduate alternate-route program, which provides teacher training to individuals who don’t already have an undergraduate degree in education. Until recently, Jackson State’s Master of Arts in Teaching program had the same testing requirements as the university’s traditional route. Now, the university’s alternate-route summer cohort has quadrupled as graduates who ended up working in careers ranging from law enforcement to retail return to education.

“It attests to their commitment and initial desire to be teachers,” Shelton said. “This waiver has had a significant impact on the ability of those students to come back.”

Shelton said prior to the waiver, Jackson State was facing a familiar concern. The math section of the Praxis Core exam was a roadblock for several students. Under Shelton’s leadership, Jackson State’s School of Education had already shifted to encouraging prospective education students to take the Praxis after they’d finished their lower-level math and English pre-requisites. Waiting until the end of their sophomore year, he said, can make it harder for students to recall material.

In the two months since the state announced the waiver of the Praxis exam, undergraduate enrollment in Jackson State University’s teacher program has doubled.

In contrast, students often perform much better on a separate certification test the state requires, which focuses only on the subjects a would-be educator wants to teach. Even candidates who struggle with math are likely to pass the Praxis exam in their area of study — social studies or biology, for example. Shelton argues the latter tests are “better markers” than the ACT and Praxis Core, which he believes reflects students’ high school experiences, rather than knowledge of material gained on campus.

Related: A major test for would-be teachers will de-emphasize the more difficult math sections

Walsh, of the NCTQ, said the math on the Praxis Core is material most schools cover by the eighth grade. Last fall, the Educational Testing Service, which oversees the Praxis, revised the math section to place less emphasis on algebra and geometry. Test takers now also receive a formula sheet to help with more advanced equations.

“There are very few elementary areas that don’t have to teach math,” Walsh said. “I don’t give much ground here. You’re not having to pass trigonometry to be an elementary teacher. You do have to know how to read data. There are basic job functions that require basic math skills. I just don’t think that this is the appropriate response.”

In the trenches of the teacher shortage in the Mississippi Delta, Hudson believes the full impact of removing barriers for enrollment in a training program for teachers who are already leading or assisting in classrooms will last beyond the coronavirus crisis. She argued that not only could the state’s move improve teacher quality, but that it will help recruit new teachers and retain experienced teachers in regions of the state where children need them most.

Hudson’s organization has had success helping dozens of educators pass the Praxis Core, but the number of individuals they’ve been able to help enroll in education programs has swelled to more than 100 in the past month, thanks to the state’s change.

“We can’t expect our kids to perform at the same level when they don’t have a vital resource — a great teacher,” Hudson said.

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

This story about the Praxis was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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