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A Hard Line Is the Right Line to Hold on Teacher Standards : State testing serves an important purpose

February 07, 1996

A federal court in San Francisco is hearing a challenge to the California Basic Educational Skills Test, which measures the reading, math and writing skills of all prospective public school teachers and veteran teachers and administrators who seek a new credential. Minority applicants, who do not pass at as high a rate as white applicants, charge that the test is discriminatory and that it does not measure the skills needed for success in the classroom or in administrative jobs. However this debate is resolved, California cannot relax its standards.

The state needs high-quality teachers to reverse the startling decline in student achievement in public schools. The state also needs minority teachers to instruct an increasingly diverse public school enrollment. These goals are not and cannot be mutually exclusive.

CBEST was born of the frustrations of then-Assemblyman Gary K. Hart, who had taught high school. After his constituents sent him ungrammatical letters written by teachers, Hart proposed a minimum state licensing requirement for new teachers. Sacramento passed this legislation in 1981, and the test was introduced 13 years ago.

Understand, the test involved is not designed to drive doctoral students to distraction. It is designed to measure basic competence in reading, writing and math. CBEST measures skills at only about the 10th-grade level. The rationale was that teachers should be able to read, write and compute at least as well as an average high school sophomore. Those are hardly standards that shoot past the moon.

The test includes 50 reading questions, 50 math questions and two essays. Passage requires correct responses to 28 out of 40 reading questions and 29 out of 40 math questions, as well as two acceptable essays. On the first try, 80% of whites pass the test; 38% of blacks; 49% of Latinos and 53% of Asians. Applicants may take the test as often as they wish, and the exam is given as often as five times a year. They may not, however, take a teaching job on a public campus until they pass the exam.

Most minority applicants pass the exam either on the first try or when they retake the test. But make no mistake: The high first-time failure rate for African Americans, Latinos and Asians is deeply disturbing and must raise serious questions about the racial disparities in the results. But should attention be focused only on the test itself? Or should more attention be focused on what leads to disparities--the more limited educational opportunities offered to many prospective minority teachers? The latter question demands more serious attention from those who seem to be putting all their energy into attacking CBEST. All children--including children of color, the majority in California--must have teachers who are both stellar in their classroom "people" skills and stellar in their grasp of broad and basic academic knowledge.

Can teachers instruct if they don't possess a command of reading, writing and math? Some teachers argue that depends on their assignment. Does a math teacher need to read and comprehend English effectively? Of course. Does a teacher who teaches primarily English need to know much math? Of course. That some teachers are asking those questions with indignation is alarmingly revealing. Already, since the litigation arose, geometry and algebra problems have been dropped from the test.

Teachers have a tough and underappreciated job. Good teachers are probably the most underpaid group of professionals in the nation, and that is shameful. But all these facts don't mean that Californians can afford to shrug their shoulders about what we should expect from those who help shape the minds of the next generation.

CBEST may indeed be imperfect and could benefit from alterations; many tests would. That is up to the court to decide. However, any attempt to relax state teacher standards is not the answer to the challenge California faces, nor is it in the best interest of the state's racially and ethnically diverse student body.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Teacher Test

Which of the numbers in the problem below is (are) needed to solve the problem:

A certain school has 32 classrooms and 40 teachers. If the student to teacher ratio is 25:1, how many students are there?

A. 25 only

B. 25 and 32 only

C. 1, 25 and 40 only

D. 1, 25, 32 and 40

Answer: C

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