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Colorado may shift to more in-depth reading exam for some new teachers

A young woman smiles as she shows a picture book to a group of young children seated in a circle beside her.
Prospective Colorado teachers could soon be required to take a more rigorous exam on reading instruction.
Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Some prospective Colorado teachers soon could be required to take a new, more rigorous test on reading instruction to earn their state teaching licenses.

The State Board of Education will decide Wednesday whether to adopt the new exam, called the Praxis 5205, for elementary, early childhood, and special education candidates seeking teaching licenses. If approved, the requirement would take effect Sept. 1, though teacher candidates will still be allowed to take the existing licensure exam for another year.

The shift to a test that demands more knowledge about reading instruction from prospective teachers would align with the state’s ongoing push to boost reading proficiency rates among Colorado students. But some university officials worry that raising the bar for licensure — and the price of exams — could make it harder for candidates from underrepresented groups to become teachers.

Around 20 states already require teacher candidates to take in-depth exams on reading instruction, according to a report from the National Center for Teacher Quality. The exams range from the Praxis 5205, which is put out by the Educational Testing Service, to various tests put out by Pearson.

In recent years, Colorado officials have stepped up oversight of how the state’s teacher preparation programs train future educators to teach reading. This new exam could spur additional changes as prep programs work to ensure their graduates can pass the test.

Currently, Colorado elementary and special education teacher candidates take an elementary licensure test that includes subtests on reading, math, science and social studies. If the new test is adopted, it would replace the reading subtest.

For early childhood candidates, the Praxis 5205 would be an additional test on top of the existing early childhood education Praxis exam. The Praxis 5205 covers five key areas of reading instruction — phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension — plus writing and assessment.

Teacher candidates with a passing score on the new test would come into the profession automatically satisfying a state rule requiring 45 hours of training on reading instruction for all kindergarten through third grade teachers.

During a May presentation to the State Board on the potential test change, Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent at the Colorado Department of Education, said the Praxis 5205 “has a nice deep dive into that scientifically based reading instead of that surface scratch on it.”

The “science of reading” refers to a large body of research on how children learn to read. One key finding is that teaching phonics in a direct and systematic way helps build skilled readers.

All six state board members who attended the meeting expressed support for the switch. Board member Steve Durham was absent.

New hurdles?

University and district officials expressed mixed feelings about the new Praxis test. Some said the shift makes sense given the state’s recent efforts to boost reading achievement, but also wondered if the new test will hold back prospective teachers of color.

Jeff Piquette, associate dean of the College of Health, Education, & Nursing at the University of Colorado Pueblo, said of the possible exam change, “I totally get why the Colorado Department of Education would want to do that and it’s totally in line with what they’re pushing on the science of reading.”

Piquette said the university has recently made changes to its reading coursework, including adding a new introductory literacy course this spring that has been well received by students.

Despite such changes, he wonders how a new exam will impact teacher candidates at the university. About half of the 115 students in the three affected majors are students of color, and many are first generation college students, he said.

“Historically, we know that underrepresented groups tend to struggle with standardized tests,” Piquette said.

A 2011 study of Praxis test-takers in 28 states by the Educational Testing Service found huge differences by race in pass rates. Nearly 82% of white first-time test-takers passed the reading Praxis 1, compared with 41% of their Black counterparts.

When researchers interviewed students and faculty at seven universities to learn more, they heard a variety of reasons for difficulties on the Praxis exams, including insufficient high school education and test-taking preparation among students, and the tests’ time limits and use of idioms and archaic words.

Lisa Altemueller, associate dean of the school of education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, worries the new exam could impact equity and diversity efforts. She cited internal university data showing lower pass rates on Praxis tests among Black and Hispanic students compared with white students.

Like the University of Colorado Pueblo, MSU Denver is a Hispanic-serving institution, a federal designation indicating at least a quarter of full-time undergraduate students are Hispanic.

Altemueller noted a bill passed by Colorado lawmakers this spring — now awaiting the governor’s signature — that requires the state to convene a work group to study barriers to a diverse educator workforce.

“We would love to wait to make any changes to [licensure exams] until we get that information so we can make informed decisions,” she said.

Higher test costs

Altemueller said she’s also concerned about the impact of additional exam fees, especially since some students already struggle to cover the cost of licensure tests.

“That’s a burden for a lot of them,” she said. “Some of them delay getting their license because they don’t have the money to pay for the test.”

If the state adopts the Praxis 5205, the increased cost for teacher candidates will range from $126 to $146 depending on the area of licensure. Elementary teacher candidates currently pay $170 to take the licensure exam that includes four subtests. With the new exam, they’d pay $296 — $150 for the existing exam without the reading subtest and $146 for the Praxis 5205 exam.

The cost for special education candidates — who also take a Praxis exam on special education topics — would go from $290 to $416. For early childhood candidates — who currently take only a Praxis exam on early childhood topics — the cost would increase from $156 to $302.

Lynne Fitzhugh, president of the Colorado Literacy and Learning Center in Colorado Springs, said she isn’t familiar with the specifics of the Praxis 5205, but said, “I certainly think that all elementary teachers need a basic understanding of the science of reading and if this test can measure that then I think it’s a good thing.”

Susan Herll, a literacy instructional specialist in the Brighton-based 27J district, sees pros and cons in the adoption of a new reading-focused licensure exam. She agrees it’s important for all teachers to understand what science says about reading instruction and said, “We have known year after year [that] our teachers don’t come into this having what they need.”

But Herll also worried a new test could exacerbate teacher shortages.

If candidates can’t pass the test, she said, “what would that then do to our opportunities to grab teachers for our classrooms and districts?”

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