Native Americans Struggle Most with Teacher Licensure Exams

Native Americans fail four components of the NM Teacher Licensure exams at a higher rate than Caucasian, Hispanic, Black, and Other ethnicities, based on an analysis of test results for 659 teacher candidates who have participated in the Three Rivers Transition to Teaching (T2T) program since 2008.

Overview of Report

 The analysis includes results from the teacher licensure tests for

  • Basic Skills,
  • Teacher Competencies-Elementary,
  • Teacher Competency-Secondary, and
  • Content Knowledge-Elementary.

Although the Foundation office has results for other sub tests, none have sufficient numbers of testers to suggest that the results may be either reliable or generalizable.

Based on test results included in this analysis, a higher percentage of Native American testers fail licensure tests than members of any other ethnic group. Overall, the difference between the percentage of tests failed by Native Americans and the percentage of the testing population represented by Native Americans is greater than among any other ethnic minority group. These results are explained in greater details below.

The data and per-test results are not publicly available at this time. We are establishing plans to study the nature of this problem and strategies for informing program and/or policy changes.


These data are clear. Native American teacher candidates struggle to pass teacher licensure examinations more than any other ethnic subgroup. What is not clear is the reason why. 

The purpose of this report is not to explain why Native American candidates fail the licensure exams in such great percentages but to describe the problem. However, two possible reasons for high failure rates include

  • Native American candidates are not sufficiently prepared for the exams, and
  • The tests are not appropriate for Native American candidates.

Preparation for Licensure Exams

Preparation includes both content and process preparation. Content preparation means helping candidates learn the information and knowledge they will be required to demonstrate on the licensure exams. Process preparation means helping candidates learn skills for taking the licensure exams and communicating their information and knowledge.

Very likely, candidates’ preparation in both areas is lacking. In simple terms, they don’t know enough about the subjects, and they are not accustomed to taking exams of this nature. 

If, indeed, Native Americans are not sufficiently prepared for the licensure exams, the fault belongs to the teacher preparation programs in which the candidates were students. If the candidates were not prepared for the exams, then the preparation programs that promised to prepare them to be teachers, instructed them, passed them in their classes, and issued degrees ultimately failed them. 

This raises an important question. Before the candidates completed their preparation programs, did their instructors ensure the candidates were ready to take the exams and, similarly, were ready to teach? 

A certain percentage of people who take the licensure exams will fail. Some will do better than others. No preparation program can guarantee that all students will pass the exams, certainly not if the exams are sufficiently rigorous. However, the data that show greater failure rates among some subgroups than others, as opposed to consistent failure rates across subgroups, may indicate that the preparation programs are more successful at preparing some subgroups than others for the exams. 

The data may also indicate that some preparation programs are more effective than others, as defined by their ability to graduate students prepared for the licensure exams. The findings and interpretations offered in this report do not suggest that all preparation programs are of equal quality. For example, a certain preparation program, which happens to serve a high percentage of Native American students, may be of lower quality than other programs. 

The data used in this analysis do not include the names or institutions of the teacher preparation programs from which the teacher candidates graduated or will graduate. However, that information would be useful for exploring differences, if any, in programs’ abilities to prepare Native American candidates for the licensure exams. 

Appropriateness of Licensure Exams for Native Americans

A second possible explanation for the high failure rates among Native Americans is that the exams, themselves, are not appropriate for this ethnic subgroup. 

Cultural differences in knowledge transmission strategies, in information distribution and expression, in modes of thinking, and in linguistic patterns, among other factors, may create barriers to passing the examss. The Native American teacher candidates may, indeed, possess all the knowledge and skills they need to be effective teachers, but the licensure exams may not provide a means to demonstrate the knowledge and skills. 

The argument can be made that if a teacher cannot adapt to the cultural foundation of the exams, then the teacher will not be able to teach effectively students who are culturally different. A teacher who cannot pass the exams due to cultural differences will be unlikely to fit into a school culture that aligns with the cultural foundation of the exams. 

However valid these arguments may be, they are short sighted. If the structure and nature of the exams prevent culturally different examinees from passing, then the exams are a barrier to appropriate and quality instruction for students who share the examinees’ cultures.

Assuming that any person who passes the exams will be effective with any group of students is ridiculous and contrary to reality. The fact that most new teachers need support and professional development attests to the fact that the ability to pass licensure exams is not an indicator of the ability to provide meaningful and effective instructional opportunities. 

Overlooking potential cultural barriers to passing licensure exams also overlooks the responsibility of principals and district personnel to select teachers who can provide appropriate instruction within the school’s cultural context. 


Given the data and analyses above, a natural reaction may be to support either lowering or changing requirements for teacher licensure for Native Americans. Either of these actions would be the wrong approach or, at least, the wrong first step. 

The first step is to understand why Native Americans, as a subgroup, struggle to pass the licensure exams. Problems and solutions are not the same, and the description of the problem does not indicate a solution. Simply, we cannot solve a problem by modifying the processes that demonstrate the problem, such as by changing exam requirements for Native Americans. 

These data are a warning flag to indicate a problem preventing people who want to become teachers from doing so. Now that the problem is apparent, the first step is to understand the causes of the problem. Then, and only then, can solutions be developed that ensure people who are able to teach are given the opportunity and that students may have teachers who are best qualified to address their learning needs. 

Given our experiences with teacher recruitment, teacher candidates, and teacher induction; our wealth of teacher data; and our evaluation experience, the Three Rivers Education Foundation is uniquely positioned to undertake such a study and to partner with education leadership organizations to design solutions.

Analysis and Discussion by David Bowman, Executive Director

Posted in Uncategorized.