Minnesota Legislature: Bill seeks to repeal year-old teacher skills exam

/ 19 February 2013 / eunice

Megan Boldt, Pioneer Press, February 19, 2013 – Thousands of Minnesota teachers are tested each year on their reading, writing and math skills before they get their license to teach.

But two lawmakers want to scrap the exams, arguing language barriers, cultural bias and lack of accommodations for those with learning disabilities are keeping good teachers out of the classroom. The tests also don’t always gauge who will be effective in the classroom, they say.

The Senate Education Committee took testimony on the proposal Tuesday, Feb. 19; no vote was taken.

The bill would repeal one passed last year almost unanimously and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, which requires all teachers to pass the exams before entering a classroom. Before that, teachers could obtain a provisional license for up to three years without passing the skills exam.

“I think it’s OK to admit that a mistake has been made in terms of this legislation, in terms of language barriers, learning disabilities, validity of the test, cultural bias, and the cost in really determining what makes a good teacher in the classroom,” said Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said many people in many professions have to pass exams to get licenses to do their job. And while the teacher exam law might need to be fixed, he said, it sure shouldn’t be repealed.

“Let’s review it. But I say that we shouldn’t pass this bill on anywhere,” Chamberlain said. “This is simply a travesty.”

Dahle, a teacher himself, said teachers would still have to tests on teaching skills and the subject area they will teach in. But some schools are finding the skills exams are difficult for prospective teachers, particularly those who aren’t native English speakers but want to teach foreign languages in immersion programs.

Minnetonka has one of the largest immersion programs in the state, with about 2,000 students who speak English as their first language but are taught almost exclusively in Spanish or Chinese. About 40 of the nearly 100 teachers are not native English speakers, said Tim Alexander, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. If an exemption isn’t passed, 12 of those teachers won’t be allowed to teach.

“These teachers are critical to the success we’re experiencing in Minnetonka,” Alexander said.

The Senate Education Committee did approve a bill on Tuesday that would allow those non-native English speakers three years to teach a foreign language without passing the exams.

Dan Devine, an art teacher and coach at Pillager High School for the past five years, still hasn’t passed the writing exam. He has a learning disability and has been denied accommodations to take the test. He’s at risk of losing his job, even though he has glowing evaluations and reviews from his co-worker and boss.

Principal Scott Doss told lawmakers that Devine has a passion that is making a difference in the lives of many kids including Doss’ own three children.

“Keep in mind that this is a young man, at this point, he is fighting for a career for $38,000 a year,” Doss said. “Fighting for a career to do the best for my children, your children, for $38,000 a year.”

Christopher Smith, a professor at Augsburg College, said he took the math basic skills test and found only 13 of the 50 questions to be free of language or cultural bias, such as references to objects that may not be common to all cultures. He analyzed passing rates for Augsburg students by ethnicity and found an overall 20-percentage point gap between students of color and their white peers.

Lawmakers recognized the legislation should be improved and accommodations made, but many on the Senate Education Committee were leery of scrapping the skills exams entirely.

“Any reasonable person would say that reasonable accommodations should be made,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, noting situations like Devine’s or those of language immersion teachers. “But the general public expects accountability.”

“Yes, I think the English teacher should know something about math. And the math teacher should be able to put a sentence structure together,” Thompson said. “I think those things are important to the people and I would be very disturbed if this ends up being repealed and all of a sudden the whole concept of a basic skills test goes away.”

Sen. Greg Clausen, an Apple Valley DFLer and school administrator, said that lawmakers are tackling the issue of teacher quality backward. Instead, they should be looking at strengthening the entrance requirements to get into teacher prep programs.

“We have a person go through four years of college, go through student teaching and now say you can’t teach,” said Clausen, who adds tougher college entrance requirements helps get “the very best, the very brightest, in our classrooms.”