The state Board of Education on Wednesday dramatically altered the way teachers are licensed by eliminating a basic skills test and replacing it with a more rigorous reading and comprehension exam.
The result is that teachers will have to be more literate and proficient in the subjects they teach, but educators who do not teach math will no longer have to pass a math test.
"We're trying to make sure every teacher who walks into a classroom knows their content area and is able to communicate well with students and with parents," said Board of Education President Thomas M. Jackson Jr. "You're losing some potentially excellent teachers in humanities because they're falling short in the math, and they haven't had math in some situations since their first year in college or before."
The board also decided that teachers who have not yet passed the new tests can spend only one year in the classroom on a provisional license. Previously, they were given three years.
Teachers already holding a Virginia license or those with two years' experience and a license from another state will not be affected by the new requirements.
The No Child Left Behind law, which requires that every teacher be "highly qualified" by 2006, has prompted states to revisit their requirements to teach. So, too, has a national movement to make sure teachers are well versed in their subject areas and not just in educational techniques.
Essentially, the board voted to drop the requirement that all teachers pass the PRAXIS I exam, a skills test that includes reading, writing and math. Instead, they will have to pass a new "literacy and communications skills" exam that will be introduced in January. The new exam is intended to test reading and comprehension skills more rigorously than does the PRAXIS I, which is estimated to assess skills at an eighth- to 10th-grade level. In addition, teachers will still have to pass a higher-level exam in their subject areas.
Kate Walsh, president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, said she pushed for a new literacy test when she testified before a Virginia panel examining licensure requirements. Research has shown that the ability to read and speak effectively is the most reliable predictor of future success in the classroom, she said.
Sixteen other states require teachers to pass the commercially available PRAXIS I, but each state chooses its own passing grade, and for years, Virginia's has been the highest in the nation. As a result, there have been yearly horror stories from beloved teachers who find themselves unlicensed when they could not pass the test after three years.
Rhea Butler, a physical education and health teacher in Alexandria, was almost one of them. In her third year on the job, she took the PRAXIS I and failed the math section by one point. She raced to take the test over and over again before she would lose her position at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.
As her anxiety grew, her score dropped. She finally passed on her sixth attempt last summer, just in time to be rehired for this year.
Butler applauded the board's change, noting that a literacy test would be a fair test of her skills. "Reading is involved with everything we do," she said.
Virginia Education Association President Princess Moss said that her organization has pushed for changes on behalf of teachers like Butler but that the effort has been thwarted by fears that the state would appear to be lowering standards.
"When the board figured out, okay, this isn't working here, then you have a political problem," she said. "How do you look at adjusting those scores and not send a wrong message?"
Jackson argued that the board's vote actually raises standards by requiring teachers to pass a more difficult reading and writing test.
"This raises the bar when we are under a lot of pressure to lower the bar so that more teachers would be eligible, by lowering [passing] scores," Jackson said.
Loudoun Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, who must hire 500 new teachers every year for his growing school system, said he is not so sure. The immediate past president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, Hatrick sat on the licensure advisory panel and said he was supportive of replacing the PRAXIS I test. But he said he fears some novice teachers will need more than one year to pass tests.
"Right now, we are facing an acute teaching shortage, not only in Virginia but in the nation," he said. "I'm not sure what we did will produce better teachers. And only time will tell whether it produces more or fewer of them."