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A new study from Indiana University finds the state teacher licensing exam, known as Praxis, could be creating challenges to diversifying the teacher workforce in Indiana.

“We were looking at questions of teacher licensing exams and the idea that Black or Brown teacher candidates were having these gaps between white candidates as a persistent problem for decades,” said Alexander Cuenca, author of the study at Indiana University.

The study, first published by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU and reported by Chalkbeat, finds the licensing exam could be one of the reasons for the ongoing teacher shortages nationally and across the state.

The research wanted to find out how states create the licensing exam. “Every state has a different process,” Cuenca said. The findings found each state decides its own passing score.

“The surprising part about the report was that when we looked at the people in the room, it’s effectively white educators in Indiana, which is important,” said Cuenca. “But the demographics were majority white. Some tests didn’t have any Hispanic or Black educators in the room as they’re having those conversations about what counts and what doesn’t count [on the test] and what knowledge counts or doesn’t count when they’re teaching.”

Cuenca says this could be one reason candidates of color aren’t passing the state licensing exam at the same rate as their white counterparts. “If we can’t get them to the point of certification to hire teachers of color in the workforce, that’s a problem that demands some attention,” said Cuenca. 

The study found 92% of the teacher workforce is white despite a very diverse student population. “We need to diversify the workforce, we need to diversify the teacher workforce, particularly and the state has been adamant about that as a goal,” Cuenca said.

Teacher shortages have affected school districts across the nation, including central Indiana. 

“In teacher training, we are winnowing a lot of our teacher workforce because they can’t get this particular gate of the test,” Cuenca said. “If we can get them past this gate of the test, we can then think about other things like pay, retention, mentoring programs. Those things have been proven worthwhile and to work.”

Cuenca says the solution isn’t to throw out the state licensing exam all together but diversify the panel of experts who create the test and decide which material to include. “Perhaps one reason why we have this persistent problem around Black and Brown teachers failing the test is that it’s constructed effectively by majority white teachers,” Cuenca said. “Perhaps we need to think about diversifying that room a little bit to see if we can get more test items to serve the entire population of Indiana.”

Cuenca hopes the study will urge state leaders to reexamine how the test is created. “We’re hoping to aim the report to the IOE and Indiana Board of Education leaders to take the recommendations that we make in this report seriously, perhaps in establishing flexibility rules about taking a closer look at the construction [of the test],” Cuenca said.

Cuenca says one thing schools can do is recruit better. “We realized when we took a deeper dive, the Department of Education said we need teachers,” Cuenca said. “But there’s no intentionality behind recruiting a diverse group of teachers.”

Cuenca says having a more diverse teacher workforce is beneficial for all students. “It’s a benefit for all school districts in Indiana to have a healthy population of teachers of color.”