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Calif. Basic-Skills Test for Teachers Upheld

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The basic-skills test required of California teachers does not violate the civil rights of minority test-takers, a federal judge ruled last week.

In the widely watched case, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick ruled against a coalition of minority educators that had filed a lawsuit against the state challenging the controversial test. The suit claimed that the 14-year-old California Basic Educational Skills Test was a "discriminatory selection device" that prevented otherwise qualified people from becoming credentialed teachers.

"The state is entitled to ensure that teachers and others who work in public schools possess a minimal level of competency in basic reading, writing, and math skills before they are entrusted with the education of our children," the judge wrote in his decision.

Delaine Eastin, California's state schools chief, hailed the decision. "I understand the great frustration people have, that we want a broader range of role models for kids, but the way [to do that] is not to lower standards," she said in an interview. "That's not fair to the kids."

Ms. Eastin said the task ahead for California, as it embarks on a massive teacher-hiring effort necessitated by a state initiative to reduce class sizes, is to find ways to make the teaching profession more desirable for well-qualified students. "Our goal has to be to raise the standards for all teachers," she said.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs, John T. Affeldt, said he was pleased that the suit had resulted in changes to the test during the past year, but he expressed disappointment that the judge did not require any further changes.

"I think this is a time when many new hires are taking place, and it's unfortunate that people of color will continue to be locked out of that process," he said.

Mr. Affeldt, who works for Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit, public-interest law firm in San Francisco, said he would appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Adequate Requirement?

The lawsuit was filed in 1992 on behalf of three groups of minority educators and several individual teachers. In 1994, Judge Orrick allowed the case to go forward as a class action that sought compensatory damages for the roughly 50,000 minority teacher candidates who had failed the test, known as the CBEST, since its inception. ("Taking on the Test," May 8, 1996.)

The plaintiffs argued that the test was not an accurate measure of teaching skills and that there was no strong correlation between performance on the test and performance on the job.

But lawyers for the state responded that the test was meant to confirm only that teachers had a basic level of skills.

Judge Orrick ruled in 1993 that the CBEST was not a state licensing examination but rather an employment test subject to federal laws requiring it to be related to performance on the job.

As a result, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing modified the test to remove difficult geometry and algebra questions and extend the time allotted to complete the test. Sam Swofford, the commission's executive director, said in an interview last week that those changes had made "no significant impact" on test scores.

Mr. Affeldt disagreed. Many minority test-takers improved their performance after the changes were made, he said.

A performance-based assessment, such as a system using portfolios, would be a better measure of classroom competence, the lawyer added. "Those are hard to do and they're expensive, and the state doesn't want to do them."

Gary Hart, the former state lawmaker who sponsored the initial CBEST legislation, said he would like to see stronger and more comprehensive standards added to the requirements. But to throw out CBEST, he said, would be demoralizing to teachers, who are seeking to enhance their credibility as professionals.

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