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California Joins States Screening Teachers With Skills Test

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California State Superintendent of Public Instruction William Honig has announced that prospective teachers taking the state's new basic-skills test will need scores of 70 percent in reading, 65 percent in mathematics, and 67 percent in writing to qualify for state certification.

After Feb. 1, the state's Commission for Teacher Preparation and Licensing will not issue new teaching credentials to people who have not pased the test, including current teachers who want to switch from one subject area to another.

The move adds California--the state employing the largest number of public-school teachers in the country--to the growing list of states that have begun to employ basic-skills tests as a way to screen candidates for the teaching profession.

One result of such examinations administered thus far, according to education officials in several states, has been to limit the number of minority candidates qualifying for certification. (See Education Week, Jan. 12, 1983.)

In California, the new programwas applied for the first time in December, when a group of 6,900 candidates took the test. Using Mr. Honig's scores, 71 percent of the minority candidates (excluding Asians) failed the test, according to the state education department.

The failure rate was 38 percent for the total test-taking population, the officials said. They did not yet have aggregate scores for white candidates as a group.

Mr. Honig said he was "deeply troubled" that so many candidates, especially members of minority groups, failed the test.

He pointed out that there is no limit to the number of times a candidate may take the test, and said he would ask the California Commission on Teacher Preparation to allow candidates who failed to retake the portion they originally failed, instead of having to retake the entire test.

Mr. Honig said of his standards: "I realize that this means some candidates won't receive a California teaching credential, but our children have to come first."

In California, as in other states where minority students have fared worse than others on such tests, their poorer performance has brought charges that the test is perhaps biased against them.

Ronald T. Vera, a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said his group questions whether the state can justify the use of a test that has such an "adverse impact" on minorities.

"We also want to know whether this test will actually predict who will be a better teacher," he said.

His group is currently investigating the legal aspects of such employment-qualification testing.

An independent panel reviewed test items to try to screen questions for social, sexual, or ethnic bias, according to the state education department.

Scores 'Quite Low'

John A. Nelson, dean of the school of education of California State University at Long Beach, said of the high failure rate: "The cutoff scores were quite low, and I think they should be raised more."

Mr. Nelson believes the advisory committee that helped produce the test did all it could to avoid "cultural bias" in the questions.

He said he believes that part of the blame lies with education institutions that "push through" students without providing them with basic skills.

"My position," he added, "is that if we raise standards, students will work up to them. We're not doing minority groups any favor by implying that they are basically inferior; that is derogatory to them."

He said he nonetheless favors using the test as a screening device and "diagnostic tool" for students who wish to enter teacher-training programs. Mr. Honig also says he favors this policy.

The examination, the California Basic Educational Skills Test (cbest), was required by 1981 and 1982 state legislation.

It was produced by the Educational Testing Service with the assistance of an independent advisory board made up of teachers, administrators, and others representing higher education, parents, and other interested constituencies.

The advisory board that produced the test recommended scores of 63 percent in reading and 58 percent in mathematics, according to David W. Gordon, assistant chief in the office of program evaluation and research. Mr. Gordon coordinated the development of the test.

The cost of developing the test was approximately $300,000, said Mr. Gordon. That expense, and expenses incurred in giving the test, will be covered by the $30 fee students must pay to take it, he added.

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