Why Teacher Certification Exams Miss the Point

For 16 years now, I’ve taught at Liberty Elementary School in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. But I’ve only officially been a “teacher” for the last five. Before then, I served in various roles—long-term substitute teacher, paraeducator. I was doing the job of teacher, but without the title. My principal pushed me to go get certified, so I eventually did: I completed an online master’s degree program, and then enrolled in the Baltimore City Teaching Residency.

I’m proud to say I’m one of the strongest teachers in my school. I’ve been consistently rated as highly effective, both in my evaluations and student performance. I even mentor other teachers. But the Praxis exams—standardized tests most states require prospective teachers to pass to earn certification—came very close to ending my teaching career before it began.

When I started my “official” teacher training, a lot of it felt redundant to me, to be honest. I had spent over a decade in classrooms every day; I felt like I knew how to teach. And I had been educated in Baltimore from kindergarten through college, so could deeply relate to my students’ experiences. Unfortunately, all of that wasn’t enough to get certified—I also had to pass the Praxis exams.

I passed all of the sections of the test the first try, except for one: math. I studied and took it again and again, but still missed by 8 points.

Listen, I’ve never been a math mind; I’ve just never been very good at it. Like lots of people, I developed math anxiety throughout the years, and so never took math in college. What did they want from me?

The thing is, though, I was great at teaching elementary math. In fact, I think some of my struggles with math in school ended up helping me teach it more effectively. But the math on the Praxis was much more advanced than anything I had to teach. So why did I have to bother? It was so frustrating and demoralizing. I knew I was a good teacher; my students and their parents, my principal, other teachers, and BCTR staff all agreed. But I still couldn’t get certified.

Luckily, thanks to some changes to state law, my certification was able to go through. But the fact is, the Praxis exam I took is simply not connected to teaching ability. Anyone can take a test and do well, just like anyone can have a good job interview. That doesn’t mean they can do the job. Doing well on the Praxis means you’re book-smart, but it doesn’t mean you can reach your students. I have known plenty of teachers who aced the Praxis, but didn’t even last a full year in the classroom.

The reverse is also true. If you struggle on the Praxis, it doesn’t mean you can’t deliver great instruction. It doesn’t mean you can’t problem-solve in for your students. It doesn’t mean you can’t build a loving, caring classroom where students feel safe. We’ve lost many great teachers because of problems with the Praxis. Sometimes they move to another state without those rules, or end up leaving the classroom altogether.

It’s also important to note that the Praxis disproportionately blocks out educators of color like me. And that really matters, especially in cities like Baltimore where most students are Black or brown. Students need to see teachers who look like them, to have those role models. Research clearly shows that students of color fare better when they have teachers who look like them. Why would we have rules that keep those teachers out?

I’m not saying people should be able to become teachers without any training or coursework. And I think there are certain subjects, like advanced high school math and science, where an exam measuring content knowledge could be useful. But certification should fundamentally be about observation: taking the time to watch someone teach and see the impact they have on students. You could even ask students and families what they think. Will that take longer? Sure. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 16 years, it’s that the quick way isn’t always the best way. Our students deserve more.

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