North Carolina budget lets teachers who struggle with licensing exams keep their jobs
Ashley Reyna Thompson – initials ART – is known as "Ms. Art" by her students at Howard Hall Elementary in Cumberland County.
Ms. Art loves to think up creative art projects for her students, but lately she's had a cloud hanging over her. Now in her ninth year of teaching, she has yet to pass a required content exam in art history. She has long struggled with testing anxiety.
When WUNC first met her last spring, she'd failed the exam six times. This fall, she took it a seventh time. When Ms. Art received her results, she discovered she was seven points short of passing.
“Really crazy — seven times, seven points off,” she recalled.
Every time Ms. Art takes the test, she feels a wave of anxiety. That time, the test started late. The pencils were dull and the scratch paper was blue, which made it hard to read her own writing. Every little thing added up, destroying her confidence and flooding her mind with worry.
She later emailed the testing company to ask if they could offer a lighter colored paper to take notes on.
“And to say, what's small to you is very huge to me,” Ms. Art explained.
The exam is a huge deal to her because her salary and her career depend on it. A few years ago, her initial teaching license expired because she hadn't passed it.
Cumberland County Schools gave her a choice: Quit teaching or be paid the same as a long-term substitute. The Department of Public Instruction confirmed that a teacher cannot be paid on the state salary schedule if he or she is not licensed.
Ms. Art stayed — and took a $15,000 pay cut — but she considered leaving the teaching profession. Her school’s principal urged her to stay.
“I just didn't know what else I wanted to do, because this is what I wanted to do,” Ms. Art said.
There are 1,470 teachers across the state who have struggled with their own exams and have been placed on a nonrenewable limited license, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Now, a new policy passed as part of the state budget will allow them to renew their licenses and continue teaching with support from their school administrators.
State budget brings a new solution for teachers who experience testing anxiety
This past spring State Senator Tom McInnis, a Republican from Cumberland County, sponsored a bill to let those teachers renew their licenses.
To seek renewal, the bill – which was later passed in the state budget – requires the teachers to submit a signed letter of support from their principal and superintendent from the school district where they’re currently employed. If the teacher teaches a core subject, he or she must also be rated as “effective” on a score that measures their students’ growth on state tests.
“We must be able to use another methodology rather than a test, which only proves you're a good test taker,” McInnis says. “[It] doesn't prove that you have the ability to deliver the product in the classroom.”
This was not the first time McInnis filed a bill like this. He’s been concerned with the issue for years, after meeting another teacher who struggled with her own exam.
McInnis describes her as “a kindergarten teacher who was a rock star, but she had testing anxiety.” He recalls visiting her classroom.
“[I was] supposed to be there for ten minutes, but I stayed for 30 – because it was a work of art, what she was doing. She had 19 kids, and they were all engaged,” McInnis says.
McInnis said when the state revoked that teacher's license, she left her public school to teach at a private school that did not require a North Carolina teacher’s license.
“We lost her in the public system. That was the straw that broke the camel's back with me,” McInnis said.
This year, when McInnis filed the bill, Ms. Art tracked it closely on the legislature's website.
“I was checking for like two to three months every single day back-to-back,” she said. “But after a while, I noticed it wasn't moving.”
The bill, like so many, stalled. Then, months later, it resurfaced in the state budget and became law. Ms. Art first heard about the change in an email from WUNC in late November.
“I had to reread that [email] probably six times. It was just an emotional wave,” Ms. Art said. “It was overwhelming at first, but it was joy.”
Cumberland County Schools has since started the process to renew her license and restore her pay. After the State Board of Education approved new rules this month to enact the policy change, school districts can now submit paperwork on behalf of affected teachers.
If the State Board of Education approves an individual teacher’s case, that teacher's limited license will be renewed and the teacher will receive standard pay based on their years of experience.
For teachers on a limited license, exams become a recommendation 'not a requirement'
Last week, Ms. Art was teaching a lesson on complementary colors, when Senator McInnis paid a visit to her classroom. He happened to be visiting the school when he heard about Ms. Art's predicament.
“I wanted to make sure that she knew that help was on the way,” McInnis said.
McInnis says his next goal is to end the testing requirement for teacher licensing, to instead evaluate teachers by classroom observations or their students' test scores.
“I think the test is irrelevant,” McInnis said, adding that he believes it only benefits the companies that develop the tests and charge test takers.
Rather, McInnis said, “It is incumbent upon us to have a teacher that has a love of teaching.”
The policy in the state budget says school districts should still “encourage” teachers on limited licenses to continue to pursue a long-term teaching license by passing their required exams.
“As a recommendation,” McInnis said. “It’s not a requirement.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Art recently took her exam again.
“When I went to go take it for the eighth time, they had yellow paper,” Ms. Art said with a grin. “I was so confident. Somebody heard me.”
Seeing the state legislature pass a law that allows her to remain in her classroom also makes her feel heard.
Ms. Art will soon get her latest test result, but now her job doesn't depend on it. With the pressure off her shoulders, she says she feels motivated to spend more of her energy than ever before on her students.
“Beyond the test, teachers can prove their worth with children,” she said.