The Praxis is a poor tool to predict vocational educator success

By Brian Ward

On the surface, the certification process for vocational instructors appears to be an accurate tool to gauge prospective instructors’ understanding of their core content areas. While that may be true for certain concentrations, such as academic content, this may not be as accurate for vocational instruction. In reality, the Praxis is counterproductive in the effort to determine whether a prospective vocational instructor meets the standards necessary to prepare students for successful careers.

Many years ago, when I left the trades to embark on my journey as an automotive instructor, I had to meet certain criteria when applying for my teaching certification. One criterion was that I needed to prove I was an expert in my field. I needed to have a minimum number of years of experience and hold a professional license or certification. Because I did not have a college degree I was required to enroll in the alternate route to certification program as required by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). Along with this program I received a mentor who helped guide me through the early years of my career.

I can attest to the validity, the rigor and depth of that process. I am a better instructor than I was when I started because of such a program.

Today, that process has changed dramatically. Several years ago, the NJDOE changed the alternate route program and started requiring vocational instructors to take the core content of the Praxis. I have seen, firsthand, the struggle teachers have with this assessment.

For an academic teacher just out of college, this is an easier transition because the content is still fresh and easily recalled. But many vocational instructors do not follow the same path as their academic counterparts. Most vocational instructors do not graduate college and go directly into teaching. We must first spend countless years mastering our trade, honing our skills, and becoming subject matter experts.

During this time, we usually receive industry credentials, certifications and/or professional licenses validating our knowledge and skills. The time needed to master the trade comes with a price: several years have gone by and what is current for individuals fresh out of college has become foreign to most trade professionals. We have become experts in our fields, which include industry-related math, technical writing, and reading skills but these may be far from what is assessed on a Praxis test.

A tale of two professions

I would like to give you two scenarios to put this in perspective.

An individual who went to school and became a registered nurse works for many years in the emergency room saving countless lives. If you were rushed to the emergency room and that individual administered lifesaving CPR to you, would you, with your last breath, ask them if they passed the Praxis? And what if they didn’t? Would you ask them to stop?

But if that individual decided to take their expertise and become a vocational instructor in a medical arts program, they would have to take the Praxis and pass it in order to obtain their teaching certification. If they could not pass the Praxis, they would not be able to teach our students and would have to leave that profession. They can save our lives but not teach others how to do the same.

The second scenario is an individual who is a licensed electrician. This individual went through an apprenticeship program for many years as a journeyman and moved up through the ranks to become a professional licensed electrical contractor. If this individual wants to become an instructor and pass along their knowledge to others, they must follow the same path and pass the same exam.

This is the same individual that we call to come to our homes to rewire them. We trust them with our most prized possession, our home, and we trust them with our family’s well-being. We trust them to safely wire our homes—in essence, with our children’s lives—but if they do not pass the Praxis we cannot trust them to teach our children to also become skilled electricians.

In each scenario, it is the students who lose. The Praxis exam is not an accurate measurement of a vocational instructor’s ability to teach, convey information and prepare our students for industry.

I understand why the state decided to go this route. It wanted to ensure new teachers would be well-rounded individuals with basic core skills. I personally know many highly educated individuals with advanced degrees who have purchased furniture or equipment that needed to be assembled. Some of them fared well on assembly but most nontechnical individuals struggle with the assembly process.

If vocational instructors need to take an academic skills assessment, why don’t all teachers have to take basic technical training and be assessed on those skills? Is one more valuable than the other? Of course not. They are just different but equally important.

Vocational education at a crossroads

The fact is we are losing great vocational instructors who are struggling to pass the Praxis. It’s not because they are not intelligent, but, rather because those skills being tested are not required or used in their field. The old adage applies here: what you don’t use, you lose or forget.

Vocational education is at a crossroads. There is a large group of veteran vocational instructors nearing their retirement. Who will fill these critical and vital roles? Who will educate, train and prepare our students to be work-ready? What if great instructors who have the passion, desire and drive to become instructors are suddenly told they don’t possess the necessary skills to be instructors because they cannot pass an assessment outside of their field.

While the Praxis may be appropriate for the academic professions, it is not a valid measuring tool for all trades. I believe there are other more accurate assessments that could be utilized.

One such test is the adult NOCTI. This exam is specific to each trade. It still requires one to be proficient in math, language arts and writing skills, but as they relate to industry standards. Also, professional licenses and certifications can be utilized in conjunction with an instructor training program such as the alternate route. There are other assessments that are available and utilized by other states. Our focus should be on retaining and acquiring highly skilled professionals.

In May, I testified before the State Board of Education, urging it to take time to reconsider the evaluation and assessment tools, policies and procedures that are in place. I also asked the board provide extensions for instructors who are being forced to resign this year because of a failure to pass the Praxis, leaving them with expiring provisional certifications.

New Jersey, especially our students, cannot afford to lose the talent of current and future vocational educators.

Brian Ward is an automotive/diesel technology instructor at Sussex County Technical School in Sparta. He is president of the Sussex County Vocational-Technical Education Association.