Testing the Teachers

More and more our educational system is using paper and pencil multiple choice tests to stand for educational accountability and high standards. While the use of these tests on our children is ruining meaningful instruction in our schools, in this column I am going to address how these same types of tests are keeping qualified teachers out of our schools.

Teachers in California have been subjected to multiple choice tests as a requirement for entering the field for many decades. However, their use has recently increased, as has their difficulty, in the name of raising standards. Teachers currently have to pass the CBEST, a reading, writing and arithmetic test very similar in form to the standardized tests grade school children take. Teacher candidates have been required to pass this test now for many years before or during their student teaching. Recently another test has been added, a subject area test known as the CSET. This test is considerably harder (though no more relevant to the practice of teaching), and must be passed before a teacher candidate may even begin student teaching. Besides this test, there is the RICA, which is focused on the teaching of language arts. It requires that the teacher demonstrate that they have learned the methods of teaching reading currently in favor by the state (though many renown learning theorists do not agree with the practices that the test advocates).

The argument is that these tests assure the public that our teachers enter the schools with a set of basic skills necessary to anyone who will teach our children. However, do they measure up to that? I would argue not. A recent piece of evidence is that a number of past graduates of the program where I currently teach, who became teachers before the requirement to pass the CSET before entering teaching, have been unable to pass it since. These teachers are currently teaching in our public schools. They have been evaluated in their actual practice as competent and even outstanding teachers. Yet, because they have not passed this paper and pencil test, these dedicated teachers may no longer be able to serve the needy youngsters of our public schools. Therefore, either those who are in a position to actually see these teachers in action, and see the results of their teaching with the children, are wrong, or these tests are screening out qualified candidates.

A further factor in the negative impact of these tests is that those who have the most difficulty passing these tests are disproportionately students of color and under-represented minorities. The percentage of teachers of color compared to the student body in California is extremely low. While the number of minorities in the teaching force has been increasing over the last few decades, over the last ten years this increase has been extremely slow. In fact, from 1998 to 2004 there was practically no increase in the percentage of teachers of color (from 24% to 25%). This means that the gap between teachers of color and students of color is widening as more of our students come from minority backgrounds (growing from 62% to 66% during that same period). Therefore, over the last decade our teachers have become less representative of the student body than they were.

In the name of high standards, we have instituted mindless tests that have little or nothing to do with the qualities we need in teachers. I believe we should eliminate these tests. Schools of education have plenty of means of screening out unqualified candidates by actually examining their academic work as well as the practical work they do in the field.

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