Taking On The Test

By David Hill — May 01, 1996 30 min read

Sitting in the empty library of San Leandro High School on a recent sunny Saturday morning, Bob Williams struggles to remember the first time he took the California Basic Educational Skills Test. “I want to say, maybe August 1989,” he finally says. “It was at San Francisco State University.” When you’ve taken the CBEST as often as Williams has--10 times over the course of five years--it’s hard to keep all the details straight.

At the time, Williams, now 43, was teaching physical education at an elementary school in San Leandro, a blue-collar city just south of Oakland. But like many teachers, Williams aspired to become an administrator. He had taken the necessary course work, which left only one more obstacle to clear: the CBEST.

Implemented in 1983 by state legislators who hoped to improve the quality of California’s teaching corps, the test measures basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. Teachers who were certified before the test went into effect do not have to take it, but prospective teachers, as well as classroom teachers who want to move into counseling or administrative positions, are required to pass the examination in order to obtain their credentials. (In addition, some education schools use the CBEST as an entrance examination, against the wishes of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which administers the test.)

So Bob Williams took the CBEST. And when he left the building at San Francisco State University that summer day in 1989, he couldn’t help but think that something had gone wrong. “I walked out feeling a little

bit frustrated,” he says. “And I think primarily it had to do with feeling like I didn’t have enough time to answer all the questions and do as well as I felt I was capable of doing. I felt really rushed. I walked out not feeling real confident that I had cleared this hurdle.”

Williams’ doubts about his performance, it turned out, were right on target. When he got his test results back, he had failed both the writing and the math portions. He took the test again a few months later, and this time he passed the writing section, but the math section continued to elude him.

Then, in the fall of 1990, Williams was offered an administrative position: assistant principal at San Leandro High School. Shortly after the fall term began, a jaywalking incident in front of the school had led to a full-blown riot involving hundreds of minority students and the San Leandro Police. “There were some strong racial overtones associated with the melee,” says Williams, who is African-American. “It got real ugly.” In the aftermath, district officials realized they needed to hire more minority administrators and faculty members in order to reflect the community’s changing demographics. Among other things, they wanted Williams to establish a conflict-resolution program at the high school. To get around the CBEST requirement, Williams was employed as a “teacher on special assignment” rather than as an administrator. He was, however, encouraged to continue taking the test until he passed the math section.

“So I kept taking it,” he says. “And there was a great deal of frustration around that because I didn’t want to keep taking it. Every time I took it and got back the test results, I had these feelings of inadequacy, of frustration, of doubt. I kept asking myself, Why do I keep putting myself through this when I don’t have to? I could always go back to teaching. But I felt that this was a hurdle that I needed to clear.

“I kept trying to keep this thing in perspective, but it became more and more difficult each and every time I took it. Sometimes I would come real close to passing it, and other times not as close.”

Eventually, Williams’ job at San Leandro High School was eliminated, and it looked as if he would have no choice but to go back to teaching. About the same time, however, another assistant principal position opened up at the school. Williams was encouraged to apply for the job, which he did, but he had to withdraw his application when he failed the CBEST yet again. “It was a major disappointment,” he says, “not only for me but for people here at the school. So as a result, the district went back to the drawing board and created a new position: Human Relations Coordinator for the district.” Because he would still be considered a teacher on special assignment, Williams didn’t need to pass the CBEST in order to take the job. Still, he wasn’t ready to give up. “I wanted the administrative credential,” he says. “I wanted to have that as an option.”

In September 1992, Williams’ wife, Eileen, happened to see a front-page article in The Oakland Tribune about a lawsuit that had just been filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The class action alleged that the CBEST was a “discriminatory selection device” that was preventing otherwise qualified minority members from becoming credentialed teachers. “White applicants,” the suit alleged, “have passed the CBEST at a rate of 80 percent, while African Americans, Latinos, and Asians have passed at rates of only 35 percent, 51 percent, and 59 percent, respectively.” The suit had been filed on behalf of three organizations--the Association of Mexican-American Educators, the California Association for Asian-Pacific Bilingual Education, and the Oakland Alliance of Black Educators--along with a handful of individual teachers. As a class action, however, it had the potential to affect the thousands of minority teachers who, like Bob Williams, had failed the CBEST.

Williams decided to put in a call to John Affeldt, a lawyer with Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit, public-interest law firm in San Francisco that had taken on the case. By November, Williams’ name had been added to the list of plaintiffs.

“Before I found out about the lawsuit,” Williams says, “I felt really helpless as far as some recourse. So it was really encouraging to see that there were some people, in addition to myself, who had been adversely affected by the test and were doing something about it.”

As the suit made its way through the court system, Williams continued to try to pass the CBEST. “I would take it at least once, sometimes twice, a year,” he says. He took several CBEST test-preparation classes, and he even arranged to be tutored in math by one of his colleagues. Finally, in August 1994, he passed the elusive math section.

Now a fully credentialed assistant principal at San Leandro High School, Williams is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the suit. U.S. District Judge William Orrick Jr. heard testimony--including Williams'--for several days in February, but the trial is in recess until June, when two more weeks of testimony are scheduled. A decision is expected by late summer or early fall.

“I’m going to feel a lot better at the conclusion of this lawsuit,” says Williams, a muscular man with large hands who played football at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. “I just hope we kick this CBEST in the ass!” he adds, sounding very much like a PE teacher. “That’s what I’d really like to see happen, so that no one has to go through what I had to go through.”

It seems like such an obvious thing to do: make sure teachers can pass a test of basic skills before they are allowed to set foot in a classroom. Yet teacher tests, which were adopted by most states in the 1980s, have been mired in controversy right from the start. The National Education Association and its state affiliates fought the spread of teacher testing tooth and nail, arguing that no single test can determine whether a teacher can teach. In 1983, when then Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas proposed that tenured teachers be required to pass the National Teacher Examination, a basic-skills test developed by the Educational Testing Service, the Arkansas Education Association filed suit in federal court but lost.

By 1985, the NEA had dropped its opposition to teacher testing as a licensing requirement, although it continued to oppose the testing of veteran teachers and the use of test scores for admission to education schools. Two years later, according to a study issued by the U.S. Department of Education, 44 states either required or planned to require that prospective teachers pass a test in order to be fully certified, and 27 states had similar requirements for admission to teacher education programs. In addition, three states--Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas--mandated tests of veteran teachers. “No other teacher reform has been adopted as widely,” observed education writer Thomas Toch in his 1991 book In the Name of Excellence: The Struggle To Reform the Nation’s Schools, Why It’s Failing, and What Should Be Done.

In the wake of the 1983 federal report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” state lawmakers seized on the idea of testing teachers as a relatively easy way to improve the quality of public schools. Yet almost as soon as the tests were put in place, reformers criticized them for promising more than they delivered. The 1987 Education Department study, for instance, noted that because the primary focus of most teacher tests was on basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics, “at best, such [testing] programs can assure that teachers are not illiterate.” The study also asserted that the “common practice” of establishing “extremely low passing scores” for the tests assured that “only the grossly incompetent are denied access to the profession.”

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had said much the same thing in 1985, when he noted that most minimum-competency tests for teachers would be considered “a joke” by members of any other profession. Such tests, he said, are “the equivalent of licensing doctors on the basis of an exam in elementary biology.” The union leader proposed that a much tougher national examination for teachers, similar to those required by the medical and legal professions, be developed instead. (The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was created in 1987 for that very purpose. Still in its infancy, the board began certifying teachers last year; 268 teachers have now passed the board’s rigorous, multi-part assessment.)

The teacher tests may have been easy, but they were producing some disturbing results. As Thomas Toch observed in 1991, “Nearly 20 percent of California’s teaching candidates have failed that state’s basic-skills test at least once since its inception in 1983. Similarly, one of every 10 veteran teachers in Arkansas failed that state’s simplistic 1985 exam; an equal percentage of Texas’ 170,000 teachers flunked that state’s 1986 test; and the failure rate has hovered near 10 percent among Georgia’s veteran teachers, who have been required since 1985 to pass basic subject-matter tests to renew their licenses.”

Even more disturbing for some was the fact that minorities were failing the tests in disproportionately high numbers. “Fully 72 percent of blacks and 52 percent of Hispanics,” Toch wrote, “have failed the Texas education school admission examination, compared with 27 percent of whites. In New York, 64 percent of blacks failed the communications-skills section of that state’s teacher-licensing examination in 1987, 65 percent failed the general-knowledge section, and 43 percent failed the professional-knowledge section; the failure rates for whites were 17 percent, 22 percent, and 9 percent, respectively. In Florida, 63 percent of blacks, 50 percent of Hispanics, and 12 percent of whites have failed the state’s basic-skills teacher-licensing examination since its inception in the early 1980s.”

Armed with these alarming statistics, opponents of teacher testing argued that the examinations were preventing minorities from entering the teaching profession at a time when their presence in the nation’s schools was needed more than ever. Several court cases ensued, but the results were mixed. In Texas, for example, black and Hispanic plaintiffs challenged the state’s use of the Pre-Professional Skills Test as a prerequisite for admission into teacher education programs because it allegedly discriminated against minorities. The District Court agreed, but the decision was later overturned by the appellate court. In Alabama, however, when four black teachers and a predominantly black university sued the state after a disproportionate number of minority candidates failed the state’s teacher-certification examination, an out-of-court settlement favoring the plaintiffs was eventually reached. Under terms of the agreement, a new test was devised, but its use as the sole criterion for certification was eliminated. The settlement also prohibited testing of material not taught in the teacher education curriculum, and it established review panels with minority members to examine the test for cultural and racial bias.

Now, the legal battle has shifted to Judge Orrick’s courtroom in downtown San Francisco. The circumstances may be different, but the questions essentially are the same: If minorities fail teacher-certification tests at a higher rate than whites, are the tests somehow biased? Or are the disproportionate results merely a reflection of a disparity in educational opportunity that exists between whites and minorities? These are the questions Orrick must come to terms with before he decides the fate of the California Basic Educational Skills Test.

When he’s in the courtroom, John Affeldt dresses in the typical clothes of a lawyer: blue suit, white shirt, red tie. But his mustache and goatee give him away; this is no high-priced corporate attorney. A 33-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, Affeldt is paid strictly by salary, which, he notes, is about one-third of what he could be making if he had gone the corporate route. But like most public-interest lawyers, Affeldt is motivated by the sincere belief that what he is doing just might change things for the better. He and Brad Seligman, who works for the Impact Fund, a nonprofit foundation in Berkeley, have devoted countless hours to the CBEST lawsuit over the past few years, and they say they’ll take their fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if they have to.

“Our basic argument,” Affeldt says, “is that the test is not valid. It’s not a valid measure of basic skills that teachers need, for anyone of any color. And the state has not produced the evidence to demonstrate that it is. It so happens that it’s also biased against people of color.”

But shouldn’t teachers have a firm grasp of basic skills?

“Of course they should,” he says. “Let me emphasize that we don’t dispute that teachers need to be able to read, write, and compute. The problem is, this test doesn’t tell us whether or not teachers can read, write, and compute, and it keeps out large numbers of qualified teachers of color in the process.” The state denies it, he adds, but the CBEST is really an IQ test disguised as a cognitive-skills test. “The only function it really serves is to give the public an elusive boost in confidence about the teaching force,” he explains. “The test was a legislated, political instrument from the beginning. It has never been a valid, psychometric, job-related instrument.” Furthermore, Affeldt maintains that the CBEST has always been a test of college-level skills and not, as the state asserts, of high school-level skills. “It’s sort of a joke on our side that the longer this case goes on,” he says, “the easier the test gets. If we keep going, it’s going to become a 1st grade test!”

For the CBEST to be valid, Affeldt argues, there would have to be a strong correlation between performance on the test and performance on the job. But such a link, he insists, has never been shown. “If these are foundational skills that you absolutely need,” he says, “then there’s no way you could lack these skills, as evidenced by the test, and still be a good teacher. But the fact that there are so many thousands of people who have failed the test but who are effective teachers, counselors, and administrators points to evidence that there’s something wrong with the test.”

Take Bob Williams, for example. According to the lawsuit, “He has consistently received high praise and excellent evaluations as an educator. Moreover, as a teacher, he was particularly commended for his excellent leadership potential and for the extent to which his attitude, countenance, and skill level make him an excellent role model for students.” Yet Williams was denied the opportunity to become a certified administrator simply because he could not pass the math section of the CBEST. Affeldt argues that none of Williams’ duties as a teacher or as an assistant principal required the kind of math skills necessary to pass the test.

Then there’s Sara Boyd, also named in the suit. An award-winning African-American teacher and administrator in Atherton, Calif., Boyd received a temporary waiver from the state allowing her to become vice principal of Menlo-Atherton High School. She took the CBEST four times over the course of six years in her quest to become fully certified as an administrator. She failed each time. “She was so humiliated by the experience,” Affeldt says, “that she refused to take it anymore.” Boyd has since retired.

And what about Diana Kwan? Born in mainland China, Kwan aspired to become a bilingual elementary school teacher and counselor in San Francisco. Yet because she could not pass the CBEST, she was denied admission to a master’s program at San Francisco State University, the same school that had previously awarded her a bachelor’s degree. According to the lawsuit, she graduated with a 3.3 grade-point average. “Were the CBEST requirement eliminated,” the lawsuit contends, “Kwan would immediately seek admittance to her chosen credentialing program, for which she is otherwise fully qualified, in order to obtain a preliminary teaching credential.” Kwan now works as a flight attendant for United Airlines.

“Absurd results flow from absurd measures,” the lawsuit states. “Proven administrators who have neither studied nor needed geometry in 30 years are suddenly at risk of losing a job which requires no geometry because of the CBEST math section; much-needed bilingual math teachers are prevented from teaching because their written English lacks idiomatic flair; teachers of Spanish for native speakers are hired instead by private schools because they cannot answer as many reading questions in an hour as a native English test-taker.”

As for the question of bias, Affeldt points out that the burden is on the state of California to show that the CBEST doesn’t favor, as he puts it, “white, middle-class, testwise students.” But he thinks the test results speak for themselves; the fact that minorities fail the examination at a disproportionately higher rate than whites proves that the test is flawed. Asked for a specific example of cultural bias, Affeldt cites a CBEST question in which test-takers were asked to write an essay about the sport of fly fishing. Affeldt says the person who told him about the question was born in Mexico and had no idea what fly fishing was. “He thought the question was about flying fish,” the lawyer says.

Affeldt further argues that when Bill Honig, the former superintendent of public instruction for the state of California, set the initial passing scores for the CBEST, he ignored the recommendations of his own staff. “In order to placate perceived fears surrounding the quality of public education,” the lawsuit alleges, “the state set substantially higher passing rates than recommended based entirely on political considerations and contrary to the state’s own data.”

At the trial, Honig testified that he was given several different recommendations regarding the passing scores but that he ultimately based his decision on what he thought an “adequate teacher” should know before entering the profession, even though he knew the scores he selected would have the greatest impact on minorities. Nonetheless, he stands by his decision, and, in fact, he thinks the scores he set “are probably a little bit too low, actually.”

The plaintiffs have already won several victories in the case. In 1993, Judge Orrick ruled 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 of that decision, the state revised the math portion, removing the more difficult geometry and algebra questions and leaving only items that required basic computation and problem-solving skills. The state also extended the time allotted for completing the test. But the plaintiffs were still not satisfied, so they asked Orrick to decide whether the revised CBEST did, in fact, meet federal guidelines. If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, he may order the state to scrap the test entirely, or he may ask that it be modified yet again.

Another victory for the plaintiffs came in 1994, when Orrick allowed the case to go ahead as a class action on behalf of the approximately 50,000 minority teacher candidates who have failed the test since its inception. The plaintiffs are asking for compensatory damages, which includes back pay for all those prospective teachers, counselors, and administrators whose careers were affected by the test. Affeldt hasn’t come up with a specific amount yet, but, he says, “You can be sure it’s quite substantial.”

The problem with the plaintiffs’ case against the CBEST is this: When you look at the test itself, it’s hard to imagine how any college graduate couldn’t pass it. Albert Shanker calls the test “extremely easy.” David Wright, director of professional services for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, testified that he gave portions of the test to his then 11-year-old triplets, and they answered all 60 questions correctly. “Each reported to me that they found the items ‘easy,’ ” Wright noted. Gary Hart, the former California state lawmaker who sponsored the initial CBEST legislation, says the test is “not a particularly sophisticated examination.” Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which supported the CBEST right from the start, says, “It’s an easy test.” (The much larger California Teachers Association was less enthusiastic about the idea, but it eventually supported the CBEST. In 1993, however, it filed a friend of the court brief in support of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. The CTA argued that the test was a “major impediment” to achieving ethnic and racial diversity in the schools and therefore should be scrutinized by the court.)

The CBEST is administered throughout the state of California six times a year. (It is also used to screen prospective teachers in Oregon.) According to the 1995-96 registration bulletin, the test is designed “to provide information about basic proficiency in reading, mathematics, and writing.” The reading and math sections each contain 50 multiple-choice questions, while the writing section consists of two essay questions. The test must be completed in four hours, but test-takers may use that time to work on any or all of the three sections. Also, there is no limit to the number of times someone may take the test in order to pass, and test-takers do not have to pass all three sections at one sitting. (A $40 registration fee, however, must be paid each time the test is taken.)

The type of questions on the CBEST should be familiar to anyone who has taken the Scholastic Assessment Test, the American College Test, or, for that matter, any standardized test. The reading section, for example, contains several passages--some short, some long--followed by questions from three skill categories: literal comprehension, inferential comprehension, and critical comprehension. Here’s a sample question:

After touring the plains toward the close of the cowboy era, journalist Richard Harding Davis observed, "The inhabited part of a ranch, the part of it on which the owners live, bears about the same proportion to the rest of the ranch as a lighthouse does to the ocean around it." Based on Richard Harding Davis' observation, which of the following can be inferred about a ranch toward the close of the cowboy era? A. Most of a ranch was uninhabited by its owners. B. The size of a ranch rivaled the size of an ocean. C. Inhabitants of a ranch typically lived in privacy and seclusion. D. The working area around a ranch was uninhabitable by humans. E. The inhabitants of a ranch, like those of a lighthouse, should be viewed as caretakers.

Here’s another sample:

All fruit juices contain the sugar fructose, and there is no doubt that some kinds of sugar are harmful. Which of the following can be correctly inferred from the statement above? A. All fruit juices are harmful. B. Some, but not all, fruit juices are harmful. C. Grapefruit juice does not contain any sugar. D. Fruit juices are more harmful than vegetable juices. E. Orange juice contains at least one kind of sugar. (The correct answers are A and E.)

The mathematics section, according to the registration bulletin, is intended to assess the test-taker’s “cumulative knowledge of mathematics from having studied it all through elementary school, high school, and possibly college.” It may include questions about such concepts as odd and even numbers, percent, ratio and proportion, powers and roots of numbers, area, volume, graphs, simple coordinate geometry, simple algebra, and simple probability, among others. Here’s a sample question:

Amy drinks 1-1/2 cups of milk three times a day. At this rate, how many cups of milk will she drink in one week? A. 4-1/2 B. 7-1/2 C. 10-1/2 D. 21-1/2 E. 31-1/2

Here’s another, presumably more difficult, sample question:

Alicia's gross weekly salary is $412.50. If 2 percent of this salary is deducted for state taxes and 8 percent is deducted for benefits, which of the following is the closest estimate of the total amount, in dollars, of these deductions? A. (0.02)(400) + (0.08)(400) B. (0.02)(420) + (0.08)(420) C. (0.10)(410) D. (0.16)(410) E. (0.16)(420) (The correct answers are E and C.)

The writing section of the CBEST consists of two essay topics, which, according to the test bulletin, “are designed to demonstrate your ability to write effectively.” Here’s the first sample topic:

Ernest Hemingway once commented, "As you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary." To what extent do you agree or disagree with his observation? Support your answer with specific examples.

And here’s the second sample topic:

Most students have had some type of difficulty in one course or another. Difficulties stem from various sources, such as teacher-student conflicts or lack of interest in the subject field. Write about one such situation you faced either as a student or as a teacher. Identify the type of class and explain whether you were able to resolve the problem. If so, how was it resolved? If not, what was the outcome and why?

Each section of the CBEST is scored on a scale of 20 to 80. The passing score for each portion is 41 points. That means a test-taker must answer 65 percent of the math questions correctly and 70 percent of the reading questions correctly. (The writing section is evaluated by a total of four scorers, two for each essay.) Although a total score of at least 123 is required to pass the entire test, examinees may score as low as 37 on one or two sections, provided the total score is still 123 or higher.

If the sample questions are any indication, the CBEST appears to be a simple, straightforward exam that most high school seniors, let alone classroom teachers, should be able to pass. You might have to bone up on long-forgotten math formulas and test-taking skills, and you might even have to take one of the many test-preparation courses now offered throughout the state. And if you fail it the first time, you’ll probably pass it the second time around. According to David Wright of the state commission on teacher credentialing, “Most people who fail one or more subtests of the CBEST retake it and pass in due course, especially if they take steps in the interim to improve the basic acquired cognitive skills measured by the CBEST or, where relevant, to improve their English fluency.” Furthermore, he argues, “the passing rate gaps between ethnic groups narrow very substantially upon retesting.”

As The Los Angeles Times noted in a recent editorial defending the examination, the skills measured by the CBEST “are hardly standards that shoot past the moon.” Do parents want their children taught by teachers who can’t pass such a test?

But if the test is so easy, argues John Affeldt, why do so many people of color have such a hard time passing it?

It’s no great mystery, counters R. Lawrence Ashe Jr., the lawyer hired by the state of California to defend the CBEST in court. A partner with Paul, Hastings, Jonofsky & Walker in the firm’s Atlanta office, Ashe has spent much of his career defending the use of standardized tests, which explains why he was brought in to handle the case. “It’s a fairly arcane specialty,” he says.

Ashe, a 55-year-old native of Knoxville, Tenn., who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967, doesn’t deny that the pass rates for the CBEST are lower for minorities than for whites. But don’t blame the test, he argues; the CBEST results are merely a reflection of a flawed public system of education. “They are an alarming, seemingly very hard to correct, indictment of the adequacy of the education we are providing to ethnic minorities,” he asserts. “For example, the average inner-city kid is not getting the same education as a middle-class kid. And ethnic minorities disproportionately are going to those inner-city schools. Further, we say that if you lower the bar even more and let through a greater number of ethnic minorities, where are they going to teach? They’re going to teach those same inner-city kids, and you’re going to recycle this problem. I mean, you can’t teach kids what you don’t know. If you don’t know basic English grammar, if you can’t write a simple essay or a note home to parents, if you can’t speak in correct English, then you’re not going to be able to teach those things, by definition.

“We say what needs to be corrected is the problem identified by the CBEST. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

The test itself, Ashe points out, is “a very low-level screen--8th to 10th grade level skills. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to the state of California how low-level a screen it is. And there’s effectively no time limit on it.”

Ashe dismisses the possibility that the CBEST is somehow biased against minorities. “There certainly is no apparent cultural bias in the test,” he says. “Each test item is reviewed very, very carefully by a disproportionately ethnic group of bias reviewers, so they don’t ask things like, ‘What is each period in a polo game called?’ Or things like that.” (The fly-fishing question presumably has been removed.)

What about the plaintiffs’ contention that there is no established link between CBEST results and on-the-job performance?

“Let me give you an analogy,” Ashe answers. “The CBEST is like the driver’s license written test. The goal is not to predict who is going to be a good driver or the best driver. The goal is to ensure that someone who doesn’t have minimum knowledge of traffic laws is not allowed out on the highway because we know that’s unsafe. That’s a simplistic comparison of what the CBEST is trying to do, but not remotely is the test trying to predict who is going to be a good teacher.”

But what about apparently well-qualified teachers like Bob Williams and Sara Boyd, who were denied the opportunity to advance their careers because of the CBEST? Is that fair?

Williams, Ashe points out, may have been a good teacher, but his academic achievements in high school and college were unimpressive. “His combined SAT scores were something like 623, on a scale of 400 to 1600,” Ashe says. He’s looked at Williams’ transcript from Linfield College, “and there’s not a single math course on it. He got credit for things like weight lifting, intercollegiate wrestling, folk dancing, etc. There’s one English course on it; that’s the spring semester of his senior year, when he got a C in Black American Literature. What is there on that transcript that tells us that he’s got minimum cognitive skills in reading, writing, and math?”

After college, Williams took the Graduate Record Examination, on which he scored in the 4th percentile on the verbal section and in the 2nd percentile on the quantitative section. “And then,” Ashe says, “he is admitted, for reasons that I don’t understand, to Stanford University, to a master’s program in physical education. . . . I can promise you that in a normal program in a graduate program at Stanford that you or I might have applied to, they’d have laughed if we had showed up with GREs in the 2nd and 4th percentile. It’s an elite, very selective school.”

Ashe admits that Williams’ failure to pass the skills test had an effect on the teacher’s career. “But he has now passed the CBEST,” he says. “It took him a long time to pass the math part. He did tutoring, and he studied. And he doesn’t agree with this, but I would argue that an assistant principal ought to understand basic math.” He calls Williams a “success story” because of his determination to clear the CBEST hurdle. (Williams smiles at the characterization. “I am a success story,” he admits. “But at what cost? What price must a person pay to surmount odds that actually shouldn’t even be in place?”)

Ashe is less charitable toward Sara Boyd, whom he refers to as Affeldt’s “poster plaintiff.” He points out that during a videotaped deposition, Boyd testified that she had a 3.5 grade-point average in college. But according to Ashe, Boyd’s transcript shows that she actually had a GPA of 2.44. “You can eyeball it and know it’s not 3.5,” he says. “It’s got four D’s on it staring you in the face. You don’t get a 3.5 with four D’s.”

At that same deposition, Boyd testified that eight out of 80 teachers at her school were black. When Ashe said, “Ten percent?” Boyd replied “No.” Ashe pressed the matter. “So what percent of 80 is eight?” he asked. For 40 seconds, Boyd was silent. Finally, she said, “Can you rephrase that? I’m drawing a blank here.” When Ashe rephrased the question, Boyd replied, “That’s about 1 percent.”

Affeldt attributes Boyd’s lapse to a case of nerves. But court documents show that Boyd took the CBEST four times, and she never scored above a 23 on the math portion. She passed the writing section on the first attempt, but she never scored above 34 on the reading portion. “You get 20 points just for signing your name,” Ashe notes. Boyd, he says, “is a nice woman. It wouldn’t trouble me at all to have her in charge of my children if I were going out of town for the weekend. But I don’t want her teaching.”

Regarding Diana Kwan, who didn’t get into a teacher-preparation program at San Francisco State University because she couldn’t pass the CBEST, Ashe points out that English is her fourth language and that she hasn’t taken the test since she was in college. “I’m convinced she would have passed it if she had kept trying,” he says. “Every single plaintiff who kept taking it passed it. The only ones who remained failures quit taking it.”

Albert Shanker may be the president of the second-largest teachers’ union, but he’s never been one to mince words when it comes to standards for teachers--or the lack of them. “There are teachers who can’t write very well themselves,” he says. “There are teachers who can’t read very well. There are lots of teachers who can’t spell. I get letters from some of them, so I can tell. And so can parents when they get a letter from a teacher. And there are teachers who are not generally very well-educated people. So when they meet with parents, the parent wants to know, ‘How did that person get to be a teacher? And how can my child learn from a person who doesn’t know much him- or herself?’ So the standards are too low. Does anybody say the standards for entering teaching today are too high?”

Shanker recently weighed in on the CBEST debate in his weekly New York Times column. He wrote: “Is it OK for students to be taught by teachers who can’t understand a 10th grade textbook or figure out the answer to an easy math problem? Here’s a simple test: Ask the parents in the Asian or Hispanic or African-American communities whether they want role models for their children who can’t read and write English at a high school level. Ask them where their children will be in 20 years if they have not learned these skills because their teachers didn’t have them. The last thing children of color need is to be taught by teachers who don’t meet a minimum standard. Furthermore, if the CBEST is killed, the level of people in the teaching profession will drop generally and California students of all races will suffer.

“Those who are challenging the CBEST have been denied jobs--and we can understand why they want to eliminate the exam. But they are doing no favor to the students they would teach. And those who are going along with them and offering them support are doing no favor to the teaching profession--or public education. What can we say of a profession devoted to teaching our young people that does not demand at least a basic competency in reading, writing, and math of its members? The problems that minority candidates have with the CBEST mean that we must do a much better job of eliminating the disparities between the education of minority children and the others. Abolishing the test will only help perpetuate them.”

John Affeldt calls Shanker’s argument “surprisingly shallow.” The CBEST, he maintains, “is not going to improve the teaching force, and it hasn’t improved the teaching force. There’s no evidence that things are better now because of the CBEST.” But like much of the plaintiffs’ argument, that’s counterintuitive. Common sense tells you that testing teachers for basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics is bound to improve the teaching force. Of course, The Association of Mexican-American Educators, et al. vs. The State of California and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is being heard in a court of law, and Judge Orrick may very well rule in favor of the plaintiffs. But what if the case were taken to the streets and tried in the court of public opinion? Would it stand a chance?

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Taking On The Test