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Report: Is K12 principal licensure exam a good measure of success?

Researchers find that an assessment used by schools in 18 states may be a barrier to non-whites and urban educators

The assessment that prospective principals must take to obtain an administrative license in 18 states may be a barrier to non-whites and urban educators, says a 2017 study.

Researchers focused on the use of the School Leaders Licensure Assessment in Tennessee and found that the exam did not provide an effective performance screen.

A team led by Jason A. Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, analyzed data from about 7,600 individuals who took the Tennessee assessment between 2003 and 2013.

Researchers then merged this information with data generated by schools where test takers who had passed the exam were working in administrative roles.

“Principals and assistant principals in Tennessee are evaluated annually,” says Grissom. “Half of this evaluation comes from a rating by their supervisors using a rubric based on Tennessee’s leadership standards.”

Grissom and his researchers compared how principals and assistant principals fared on the rubric-based component of the evaluation with their assessment results.

They didn’t find evidence that high scorers on the assessment had any different ratings on the evaluation than those who scored lower, meaning that the assessment doesn’t accurately predict job performance for principals.

“There were also no differences in the test score growth in their schools or in the ratings of school leadership given by teachers on a statewide survey,” says Grissom.

Researchers did, however, discover that the exam might accurately assess how well assistant principals might perform. Those administrators who scored high on the assessment were rated more highly on the rubric-based component of the evaluation.

Key takeaways

The study—“Principal Licensure Exams and Future Job Performance,” published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal—offers several key takeaways:

  • Non-white test takers receive lower scores than white test takers.
  • Non-white test takers are three times more likely to fail than their white test taker counterparts.
  • Test takers in urban schools fail more frequently than rural ones.
  • Test takers working in schools with more black students and more students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school fail more frequently than those who work with less.
  • Women test takers earn higher scores than men and are less likely to fail than men—meaning there should be more women in leadership roles.

Such findings are not good news for leaders who may want to diversify their workforces. “Districts are being handcuffed by the exam,” says Grissom. “There are potentially high-quality leaders out there, and the district isn’t allowed by their state to hire them.”

The School Leaders Licensure Assessment is the most common exam of its type, used in 18 states. Even though each test shares similar characteristics, some of the rules vary depending on where the assessment is taken, says Grissom.

Some states allow districts to apply for waivers if they want to hire candidates who failed the exam. District leaders who don’t have this option should consider pressuring their state to change the rule, he says.


Steven Wyman-Blackburn is web editor.