'We Must Interrupt the Cycle Of Minority-Group Failure'
As the use of standardized tests to screen prospective teachers spreads across the country, minority applicants are failing at a disproportionately high rate. Critics argue that the increased use of testing is inherently racist and counterproductive. But I disagree. If we devalue standardized tests, we are evading the serious issues raised by high minority failing rates--and that will only perpetuate the problems all of us are seeking to solve.
California has recently increased its reliance on testing and the state's story is instructive, reflecting the national experience. Since 1983, prospective teachers in California have been required to take the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), which evaluates basic skills in mathematics, reading, and writing. Candidates take the CBEST for diagnostic purposes before they can be admitted to a teacher-education program, and they must pass the exam before receiving certification. Prospective teachers who have not successfully completed an approved sequence of academic courses are also required to score above a minimum cutoff on the National Teacher Examination (NTE) in order to enter the profession.
California's testing program, like that of other states, has received some rather harsh criticisms. Among those most reluctant to endorse the growing reliance on standardized examinations are groups sensitive to the unique problems confronting prospective teachers from minority backgrounds.
The reluctance of these groups is understandable, given the tests' effects on minorities nationwide. In California, of the 6,644 minority candidates who took the first CBEST in 1983, 3,854, or 58 percent, failed. The highest failure rate was among blacks. Of the 2,040 blacks who took the exam, only 530 were able to proceed with their plans to be teachers, a paltry 26 percent. For other minority groups, the test results were not much better: Only 834 (39 percent) of 2,133 Mexican-Americans and 637 (50 percent) of 1,259 Asian-Americans passed. In comparison, the passing rate for whites was 76 percent, with 18,856 of the 24,540 whites who took the exam passing.
The rates of failure on these examinations reflect two ominous trends: the decline in interest in teaching on the part of many well-educated students, especially talented minority students, and the failure of the colleges and universities to guarantee that their graduates, including many minority graduates, can read with comprehension, write literately, and perform routine mathematical computations.
The problems associated with these high minority failure rates are made all the more serious by our increasing need for qualified black, Hispanic, and Asian-American teachers at a time of rapid demographic change. A large and increasing proportion of public-school students in California and a number of other states are minority youngsters, and demographers expect this picture to continue into the next century.
If present trends continue, the supply of minority teachers will nose dive, a result that is as disturbing as it is unacceptable. Equally serious is the prospect that when minority-group pupils, especially those contemplating teaching careers, learn that many prospective minority teachers are judged not good enough to teach, they may lose confidence in their own abilities and conclude that the teaching profession is "off limits" to minorities. Also, minority students, who desperately need to see successful role models, would be denied access, yet again, to exemplars of success.
The first reaction of many to these test results is to cry "racism.'' They insist that "alternative" certification standards be adopted for minority-group teaching candidates in order to take into account their different experiences and qualifications. Otherwise, the argument goes, the promises of democracy and equality will once again be placed in great jeopardy. I disagree with such a view. We must support minimum-competency standards. We must insist that all prospective teachers demonstrate mastery of basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.
Many have argued that exams like CBEST are culturally biased, heavily skewed in favor of pupils from middle-class homes. This may well be the case. But the solution is not to throw out standardized examinations. We must insist instead that every attempt be made to rid these exams of their invalid features.
We must also insist that public officials, in and out of the educational establishment, develop, fund, vigorously monitor, and evaluate school-improvement programs designed to help minority pupils become more competitive on examinations such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the CBEST Here again, targeted programs make more sense as a means to close the performance gap between low-income and middle-income students than proposals to discontinue the sat or CBEST We must not accept and thereby institutionalize dual standards for minority and nonminority students.
It is clear that we must interrupt the cycle of minority-pupil failure and take direct action to provide all students in our public schools with high-quality education that is responsive to their real needs. We cannot begin this effort without well-qualified teachers, including well-qualified minority teachers. To meet the challenge we face, we need to take steps to ensure a larger pool of qualified minority teachers, while also maintaining and improving standards of teacher quality.
How can we achieve this goal? The following comprehensive program, which is currently under consideration by the California state legislature, comprises my three-step plan to address this imbalance. It includes proposals for identifying early in their education minority and low-income students who have a commitment to teaching; providing these students with intensive university and postgraduate training; and instituting programs and rewards for outstanding effective teachers--nonminority as well as minority--once they are in the classroom.
As early as high school, students who have expressed interest in teaching as a career would be selected to participate in a special university-level preprofessional program. Admission considerations would include students' potential for growth and eagerness to learn in addition to the traditional criteria of grades and past achievements. Special efforts would be made to recruit students with a background or interest in areas of particular need, such as mathematics, science, or language and literacy. The program would require a five-year university course of study leading to the bachelor's degree and would provide a series of paid school-year and summer teaching internships. Interns could work for, and learn from, master or mentor teachers to the mutual benefit of both.
Upon selection, students would take a series of diagnostic tests to identify subject-area strengths and weaknesses. In conjunction with regular studies, they would then enroll in a series of tutorials to work on skill development in their weakest areas. These tutorials would be an integrated part of an undergraduate liberal-arts program leading to the bachelor's degree and would cover reading and basic mathematics, with heavy emphasis on reasoning skills and good, clear writing. At the end of two years, the students would be tested to measure their growth. A second individualized study program, again based on skill levels, would then be developed and the process intensified over the next three years.
After receiving their bachelor's degrees, students would be guaranteed admission to participating California State University or University of California Graduate School of Education programs, where they would enroll as regular students. Graduate scholarships covering student fees would be provided to all of these students with an undergraduate grade-point average of B or better. Partial tuition scholarships would be available to high-achievement students. Again, as in the first phase of this program, paid internships would be provided to all qualified students for the duration of their postgraduate teacher-training studies.
Any such effort to increase the pool of qualified minority teachers must be followed up with an equally vigorous effort to improve the placement and retention of teachers in schools with large minority populations. This means that we must work to end those "alternative teacher-selection processes" in which teachers with less experience, no advanced degrees, and lower salaries are assigned to schools with high proportions of minority and low-income pupils. To put it more bluntly, these "alternative" efforts have often resulted in pupils with the greatest needs being relegated to classes taught by inexperienced teachers who are themselves in great need of support and guidance from more experienced teachers. Moreover, while successful in increasing minority employment opportunities, alternative selection programs have in too many instances operated as restricted racial conduits, steering newly hired minority teachers whose qualifications have been earned through alternative means into almost exclusively minority schools. We cannot allow this situation to continue; it is to the detriment of all.
The third step of my program addresses the need to identify and reward good teachers after they have been in the classroom for a few years and to provide incentives for them to remain. I propose a new test as the basis for certifying outstanding individuals as "master teachers." To be taken after at least five years of full-time public-school teaching, the test would measure not only subject-matter competency but also knowledge and application of learning theory, and an ability to implement effective teaching strategies in the classroom.
The test would evaluate a teacher's professional judgment and ability to diagnose needs of students, match instruction and use of materials to those needs, and evaluate pupil progress. It would not be solely a pencil-and-paper exercise; applicants would also be required to demonstrate their instructional skills in a natural setting.
This test would be to teaching what the Certified Public Accountant's examination is to accounting. It would be voluntary, leading to certification as a master-level teacher--and, therefore, to new opportunities for professional advancement. As in the case of cpa-level accountants, these master-level teachers would be compensated accordingly. The test should be available on a nationwide basis, thereby expanding the job market for master-level teachers and helping those outstanding educators who saw themselves in "dead-end" positions seek advancement beyond both district and state. Moreover, school districts using the test would be able to allocate teaching talent on a more equitable basis within their districts.
In all fairness, I must acknowledge the pain and suffering experienced by those not now armed with the knowledge and skills required to pass present minimum-competency exams. Certainly, we need to increase the number of minority teachers. But we must keep in mind that the effectiveness of our schools cannot be measured simply by statistics on the racial composition of teaching staffs. School effectiveness must be measured by statistics reflecting the mastery of basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic by all of our students.
What I have proposed here may bring a short transitional period of disappointment for some who will be locked out of teacher-training programs or certification. But the benefits will outweigh the costs; it will finally put a stop to "victim-blaming" measures that have created more problems each time they have been applied. What education needs now is not more exceptions to standards but more flexible and imaginative programs to ensure that, in more and more cases, the standards themselves can be met. Our children, our teachers, and our society deserve at least that.
Vol. 04, Issue 26, Page 24, 17