Florida just extended the time that new teachers have to pass the state’s General Knowledge test from one to three years. Will it help more teachers pass the test? Probably not.

Last summer, more than 1,000 teachers across Florida lost their jobs because they couldn’t pass the General Knowledge test, one of three exams that an individual must pass to earn the state’s renewable “professional” teacher certification.

These teachers held temporary certifications, which are not renewable but which allow teachers three years to complete the requirements for the professional certification – with one exception. Until this year, temporarily certified teachers had to pass the General Knowledge test in their first year of teaching. A temporarily certified teacher who did not pass the General Knowledge test in her or his first year of teaching was terminated.

That has now changed. Temporarily certified teachers have three years to pass the General Knowledge test because of a provision in SB 7070, the omnibus education policy bill that was passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Katie LaGrone, the Investigative Reporter for the Florida TV stations owned by the Scripps Company, did a tremendous job spreading the news of the bloodletting caused by the General Knowledge test. LaGrone introduced Florida viewers to the story of Emily Mixon, who decided to teach theater and dance at Escambia High School in Pensacola after more than a decade in Pensacola’s performing arts community. Mixon was fired last summer after her first year of teaching because she couldn’t pass the math section of the General Knowledge test. In all likelihood, Mixon could have passed the math section during her time as an undergraduate more than a decade before. But she couldn’t recover enough math knowledge a decade later to succeed on the General Knowledge math section.

Would Mixon have benefited from the new law that says she would have had three years to pass the General Knowledge test instead of the one year deadline she was subject to? Perhaps common sense would indicate that the answer to that question is “yes”. But research on teacher professional development in math suggests the opposite conclusion – that Mixon would not have been significantly more likely to pass the math test in three years than she was in one year.

In 2011, the Institute for Educational Sciences at the US Department of Education released a report on the efficacy of a two-year professional development program intended to improve the knowledge of middle school math teachers about rational number topics and to improve their instructional effectiveness. The program design took advantage of the best research on how people learn math. Common sense would have led an observer to predict that the participating teachers would come out of the two-year program with stronger math content skills. But instead, the IES researchers concluded this: “At the end of the second year of implementation, the PD program did not have a statistically significant impact on teacher knowledge.

That result suggests that even if career-changing teachers like Emily Mixon had two extra years in the best possible math professional development program to prepare to pass the General Knowledge test, it probably wouldn’t do them any good. Under the new law, Mixon wouldn’t have been terminated after her first year. But it’s likely she would have been terminated after her third year – the expiration date of her temporary certification.

If individuals who enter the teaching profession a decade or more after graduating college to teach arts or humanities subjects are unlikely to be able to learn enough math to pass the General Knowledge test, then what is the point of extending the deadline for passing the test from one to three years? For one thing, it stops the bleeding – at least for now. No temporarily certified teacher will be fired for failing the General Knowledge test for the next two years. And Katie LaGrone will not be able to broadcast explosive reports on the subject for that two year period. It will take the General Knowledge test off the public radar screen for that two years – and perhaps permanently.

I think the General Knowledge test is wasteful and keeps strong teachers away from the state’s students. There are policy-makers and teachers who disagree with me and believe there is significant merit in maintaining the test. But the IES report on math teacher professional development suggests that while the new law will provide a two-year hiatus from the mass termination of temporarily certified teachers, ultimately we will be right back where we started.

Escambia High School, where Emily Mixon taught dance and theater before being terminated because she couldn’t pass the math section of the General Knowledge test.
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