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State Test Passes

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The basic-skills test that all prospective teachers in California must pass before entering the classroom does not violate the civil rights of minority test-takers, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled in September against a coalition of minority educators that had filed a lawsuit challenging the California Basic Educational Skills Test. The suit, which had attracted national attention, argued that the 14-year-old test, known as the CBEST, was a "discriminatory selection device" that prevented otherwise qualified people from becoming credentialed teachers in California. ("Taking On The Test," May/June 1996.)

"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 superintendent of schools, hailed the ruling. "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. "That's not fair to the kids."

The lawyer for the plaintiffs, John 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. 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.

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 since its inception. 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.

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 an employment test. Federal law requires such tests to be related to performance on the job. As a result of the judge's decision, 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 those changes have made "no significant impact" on test scores.

Affeldt disagreed. Many minority test-takers, he said, improved their performance after the changes were made. A performance-based assessment, such as a system using portfolios, would be a better measure of classroom competence, the lawyer added. But he said, "Those are hard to do, and they're expensive, and the state doesn't want to do them."

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