Expert Commentary

Do licensure exams help school districts pick good principals?

A licensure exam that educators in many states must pass to become school principals may be an ineffective means of predicting future job performance, a new study suggests.

Principal with parents (Provo City School District)

A licensure exam that educators in many states must pass to become school principals may not be an effective way to predict job performance, a new study suggests.

The issue:  As policymakers nationwide focus on public school reform, they have become increasingly interested in recruiting and retaining top teachers and principals.

While there are a number of ways to gauge teacher quality – for example, teachers who have earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are among the country’s most accomplished – it is tougher with campus administrators.

In many states, securing a principal job requires a passing score on a licensure exam such as the School Leaders Licensure Assessment. But there is debate in education circles about what a passing score on a licensure exam really means for school principals, who must demonstrate a range of talents, including overseeing budgets, supervising teachers and helping students meet certain academic goals.

A study worth reading: “Principal Licensure Exams and Future Job Performance: Evidence from the School Leaders Licensure Assessment,” published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 2017.

Study summary: A research team led by Jason A. Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, investigates how well principal license exams predict the future job performance of principals and how they influence the pool of educators available to work as principals.

For the study, Grisson and his team analyze data on individuals who took the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA) in Tennessee between 2003 and 2013. The group matched test scores to the administrative data files of employees working in public education and identified 7,951 test scores for 7,633 people with valid Tennessee educator licensure records. Grissom and his colleagues merged that information with data from the individual schools and school districts in which test takers were working at the time.

Key takeaways:

  • Test takers who are not white receive lower scores than white test takers. Meanwhile, failure rates for non-white test takers are about three times higher than for white test takers. This finding “suggests that failure to obtain the required cut score may be an important barrier to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in a principal workforce that is overwhelmingly white.”
  • Women earned higher scores and were less likely to fail than men.
  • Failure rates were higher among test takers who work in urban schools. They were lower for individuals working in schools with fewer black students and fewer students who qualify for free or reduced price meals at school.
  • Individuals with high scores on the SLLA are more likely to be hired as school principals, assistant principals or school administrators.
  • There is little evidence that the SLLA is an effective performance screen. There is some evidence, however, that the test might help predict job performance for assistant principals.

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