Lawmakers consider scrapping teacher licensure test

/ 11 March 2014 / eunice

Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio, March 11, 2014 – Before giving their first test in the classroom, new Minnesota teachers face their own exam.

One part of the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Exam is known as the “basic skills test.” It’s one of the final hurdles for new teachers heading to the classroom. It measures a teacher candidate’s grasp of college level reading, writing and math.

Lawmakers are considering whether to scrap the test over concerns that it’s flawed and keeps good candidates, especially minority teachers, from entering the classroom.

Teachers who fail the basic skills test often receive a waiver for a temporary teaching license, said Christopher Smith, a professor of education at Augsburg College. In many cases, he said, they become effective teachers.

“That showed a certain disconnect between what the assessment was intended to do and what it empirically was showing by these teachers performances,” he said.

Smith co-chaired a state task force that recently recommended Minnesota drop the test and develop a set of standards that teacher preparation programs can use to prove a teacher is ready to enter the classroom.

State data from 2013 shows 20 percent of teacher candidates failed the reading, writing and math test currently in place. Among minority teacher candidates, failure rates were significantly higher. Smith said members of the state task force concluded that’s due in part to cultural bias in the test questions.

“If it is measuring with some degree of bias then we need to get rid of it,” he said of the test. “We need an objective measure.”

At a time when Minnesota is working to diversify its teacher workforce, Smith said the basic skills test threatens to keep minority teachers, out-of-state teachers and international teachers recruited for Minnesota’s language immersion schools out of the classroom.

But the prospect of dropping the test troubles another member of the task force. Jim Bartholomew, educational policy director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said most states have a test in place to ensure teacher candidates have a good grasp of reading, writing and math.

“For Minnesota to go in the opposite direction of virtually every other state sends a terrible message and would be the wrong way to go,” Bartholomew said.

Those who claim the basic skills test is flawed and unnecessary see little harm in scrapping it altogether.

They say new teachers have already proven themselves ready to lead a classroom by being admitted to, and graduating from, a certified teacher preparation program.

But state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, doesn’t think that’s enough.

Erickson proposes keeping the test, as a benchmark proving teachers are well-rounded academically and prepared to teach.

“I’m not assured that just because you get a college degree you’re proficient in those three areas,” said Erickson, a former English teacher. “I’ve never been assured or confident that that’s really occurred, which is why I’ve been a strong proponent of a test.”

Instead of scrapping the test, Erickson prefers fixing the current version to correct any bias in the questions.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, chair of the House Education Policy Committee, agrees there are flaws in the current test, and thinks a replacement should be considered. But Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, doesn’t think there’s an appetite at the Capitol, or in Minnesota to do away with the basic skills test all together.

“The public absolutely should have a series of assurances before we hand out professional licensure,” Mariani said. “We’ll come up with a more appropriate and rigorous assessment. So that’s what we’re struggling with figuring out how to do.”