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Digging Deeper into Wisconsin's teacher shortage: The test holding some back

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As Wisconsin faces a shortage of teachers across the state, those who are working toward the classroom are facing a major barrier.

A state-required test to get a teaching license is holding some aspiring teachers back from their dream jobs.

Shawn Newby is a masters student in the UW-Madison School of Education. He's in his final months of student teaching with special needs students at West High School in Madison.

"The kids I work with would be classified as more severe," Newby says. "I enjoy working with that population. I enjoy just interacting with them. It takes so long for a lot of these kids to master a concept and so being able to to do that, I enjoy."

Newby is set to graduate in May. Madison Metropolitan School District has offered him a permanent job next school year, but his future is in jeopardy because he hasn't been able to pass a state-required exam to get his teaching license. 

He's taken the test four times, coming within one point of the passing score when he took it earlier this month. 

"You have confidence, at least you know the stuff, and then when you get the score back you have the air let out of your tires almost, this defeat feeling," Newby tells 27 News.

Out of five classmates in his program, only two have been able to pass it as they prepare to graduate in a month. 

The Foundations of Reading Test, or FORT, became required starting in 2014 as part of recommendations from the governor's Read to Lead Task Force. It's an effort to improve reading test scores among children at Wisconsin schools.

"The fourth grade reading scores in Wisconsin had kind of plateaued and it was at a level that [officials] were not real thrilled with, so they wanted to improve reading instruction in the state, to make sure that every teacher who is teaching grades K-5, or special education, or getting  a reading teacher, or reading specialist license, that they really know the theory and the content and the different ways to teach reading," says David DeGuire.

DeGuire is assistant director of the Teacher Education, Professional Development and Licensing Team with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. He says the passing rate of the FORT has gone down since the passing score limit was raised. Other states have lower pass scores, but state law requires Wisconsin teachers to have a score no lower than test developers recommended.

Teachers who were already licensed before 2014 are not required to take the FORT, but anyone graduating education school or teachers already licensed in another state have to pass before getting a Wisconsin license.

It's become a challenge for those trying to go into education.

"The two biggest hurdles for people to enroll in a [teacher preparation] program, or to complete a program, are the testing requirements and the financial burden," DeGuire tells 27 News.

DeGuire believes some colleges haven't properly adapted to help teach students what they need to know to pass the test and become a good reading teacher, but some literacy experts say it's a deeper issue.

"I totally believe in teacher expertise, but I don't think that this test captures that," says Catherine Compton-Lilly, UW-Madison Professor of Curriculum and Instruction.

Compton-Lilly says some people are just poor test takers, but do well in their course work and prove themselves as student teachers, so she'd like to see changes to the requirements to promote intensive coursework in reading and have an opportunity for a waiver for capable students who just can't pass the FORT.

The test also comes with an issue of disparity. State statistics show 68 percent of white students in 2015-16 passed the test on the first try, but only 39 percent of African Americans passed. 

"All of these are students who are in the same teacher ed programs, taking the same courses, doing well in the same courses, having practical experiences working with experienced teachers and being successful in those sites," Compton-Lilly tells 27 News. "We're not seeing differences in terms of their teaching, their planning, their organization, their thinking about children, their understandings of what teaching entails."

UW has started specialty tutoring to help students who haven't been able to pass the test to get their license. Compton-Lilly says she's noticed students taking literacy more seriously now and the test has created an urgency around getting teachers ready. 

DPI can issue emergency licenses for those who meet certain qualifications. The state issued 1,969 emergency licenses and permits for the 2015-16 school year, double that in 2013-14, when 957 licenses were issues the year before the test became required.

Those licenses are only for the short term, leaving student teachers like Shawn Newby hoping for the right score, to start the job already waiting for him. He says he can't think about what might happen if he doesn't pass the test in time for the school year.

"It's something I don't want to think about, because doing this program, I've passed every [other] exam they want for this, I've done all the work, 'A' student," he says. "I really haven't thought about that far, because to me, this is what I want to do. This is where the best fit is for me."

State education officials are working on reducing test challenges, as pass rates drop every year. They're considering an emergency rule to allow students with a higher GPA to show proficiency with some type of portfolio. DPI is also looking at other possible rule changes, to fill an overall teacher shortage in the state.

Also on wkow.com:

DIGGING DEEPER: Shortage of teachers of color

DIGGING DEEPER: As teacher shortage looms, state officials look for answers

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