Tests Exclude Blacks From Teaching Profession

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A growing number of states, in response to charges of widespread incompetence within the ranks of the teaching profession, are requiring teachers to pass tests of basic skills before they are given a teaching license.

But the states' experiences with such tests thus far--mainly in the South--suggest that their main accomplishment may be to reduce significantly the number of minority teachers.

About nine states now have their testing programs in place. And at least 24 others either plan to initiate or are considering similar teacher-licensing examinations.

A review of most of the testing programs already in place indicates that a disproportionately high percentage of black students are failing the tests and thus are being barred from becoming teachers. For example:

In Florida, 83 percent of all of those who took the state's teacher-certification examination last October passed each of its four parts, which include mathematics, reading, writing, and teaching skills. Among blacks who took the test, the figure was 35 percent.

A prospective teacher must answer about 70 percent of the questions correctly to pass the mathematics test, about 80 percent to pass the reading test, and just over half to pass the teaching-skills test.

Beginning next month, all teachers in Arkansas must pass the National Teacher Examination (nte) in their subject area before they can be certified to teach. In an-ticipation of the new law, the state administered the test to all candidates for teaching jobs in the state over the past two years.

According to state statistics, 47 percent of the blacks who took the nte test in elementary education, the test taken by the largest number of blacks, would have failed to meet the state-imposed cut-off score on the test, which requires the test taker to do at least as well as 10 percent of all those who take the test nationally. Three percent of the whites who took the elementary-education test would have failed it. A test of professional skills is now being pilot-tested in the state; it, too, will become a certification requirement.

The most recent figures from the Alabama teacher-licensing test indicate that last June, 51 percent of the blacks failed the "basic professional studies" test, 52 percent failed the early childhood test, and 51 percent failed the elementary-education test. The failure rates for whites on the three tests were 28 percent, 7 percent, and 10 percent, respectively.

In the six months between January and June of last year, the most recent period for which figures are available, 74 percent of the blacks and American Indians who took the two-year-old Arizona teachers' basic-skills test failed it. The failure rate for the whites who took the test during that time was 25 percent. For Hispanics, it was 59 percent. Correct answers on 80 percent of the 150 multiple-choice questions in reading, grammar, and mathematics are needed to pass the test.

Not only are teacher-licensing tests disqualifying many black teacher candidates, observers note, but the level of the tests is too low to ensure that beginning teachers who do pass them are adequately educated and prepared for the profession.

Thomas H. Fisher, who runs the teacher-testing program for the Florida education department, said the skills tested by the mathematics examination are usually learned at the 8th- or 9th-grade level. The exam also tests knowledge of such things as percentages, fractions, and knowledge of geometric forms, he said, adding that the reading and writing sections are "not so difficult that a good high-school student couldn't pass them."

But he added that "there are teachers now in the classroom under temporary certification who have failed the test three times." A teacher must pass the Florida test in or-der to be fully certified in the state.

Michael F. Kelly, head of teacher certification for the Arizona department of education, adds: "The math questions measure 8th-, at best 9th-, grade levels of difficulty. ... I've got a little 6-year-old nephew who can do some of the things on the test."

Others familiar with the teacher-testing movement agree that the tests are not very challenging.

"It amazes me that people can get through college and then not pass these tests," said Eva L. Baker, a member of the faculty of the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and the director of the Center for the Study of Evaluation, an organization that examines testing issues. "As a parent, I wouldn't want my child to be taught be someone who can even just barely pass these tests, unless he or she had some other super-redeeming quality."

"The cut-off scores are so absolutely low, I'm appalled," added Eva C. Galambos of the Southern Regional Education Board, a 14-state consortium set up to advise the governors in the region on education policy.

Florida's Education Standards Commission recently recommended that the state's board of education raise the scores required to pass the mathematics, reading, and teacher-skills sections of its teacher examination.

Some acknowledge that the teacher-licensing tests are at least in part public-relations devices, designed to assuage the public's dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching in the nation's schools. Said C.C. Baker, an associate superintendent in the Alabama education department: "We're addressing the public [with our teacher test]; we're saying that we are not going to put illiterate teachers in the classroom."

The dilemma, several officials noted, is a painful one. Rigorous testing seems to offer a valid method to ensure that teachers are adequately prepared, they said, but making tests more demanding may prevent even more minority candidates from becoming teachers.

And those expressing concern over the consequences of the high rate of failure among blacks taking the tests also point to the fact that a number of other states will have similar licensing tests in place within the next 12 months.

In addition, states are beginning to mandate similar basic-skills tests for admission to education schools. South Carolina, for instance, will give its first education-school admissions test next month. Most observers predict that the trend to-wards increased use of teacher tests for both purposes will continue for several years. Mr. Kelley pointed out that the pool of potential minority teachers, especially Native Americans, has shrunk by two-thirds in Arizona since the introduction of the teacher-licensing test.

"The numbers suggest that there is going to be a supply problem with minority teachers right away," noted Mr. Fisher, the director of testing in Florida. "The degree to which blacks are failing the test is such that, in some cases, school systems won't be able to fulfill court-ordered minority hiring goals."

At the same time, Census Bureau statistics show that the proportion of black students in the nation's schools rose from 12 percent in 1968-69 to 15.3 percent (with the proportion rising to 60-80 percent in the largest urban areas) in 1979-80. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the representation of black classroom teachers remained at about 10 percent for several years up to 1979-80, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Others, though, including Mr. Baker of Alabama, do not think the trend toward increased teacher-testing will have "that much" of an effect on the numbers of blacks entering the teaching profession.

Black educators say that if black teachers are kept out of the profession, black students will suffer.

"It is going to be very difficult for black students to find role models, to find people who understand the life they lead outside of school," said Joseph L. Martin, the dean of the college of education at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (famu)--a predominantly black institution.

'Role Models'

"If we are in the business of integrating this society, black kids need role models in the classroom," added Veronon G. Gettone, dean of the college of education at South Carolina State College, also a largely black institution.

Such predominantly black education schools may also become casualties of high failure rates among blacks on the teacher-licensing examinations.

The 100 such schools in the country have traditionally granted a majority of the undergraduate education degrees earned by blacks.

But under a 1980 Florida law that requires at least 80 percent of the graduates from each of a school's programs to pass the test within a year, some or all of the programs in the state's black teacher-training schools may lose their state accreditation next July.

The loss of state approval "would be devastating" to the enrollment in education programs at famu, Mr. Martin said, because state law requires all teacher candidates to have graduated from state-approved programs. The Alabama board of education is scheduled to vote on a similar proposal next month and several other states have the idea under active consideration.

Mr. Martin is not opposed to the use of a teacher-licensing test in Florida, but said that predominantly black education schools, like his, should be given help by the state to upgrade their programs: "The state has imposed this screening system on us without giving us any support."

Mr. Martin said he planned to take several steps to improve the performance of his graduates on the licensing examination, including raising the grade-point average needed for admission from 2.0 to 2.5, requiring that essays be written in every course, and increasing the number of required course-hours in mathematics and English.

He estimates the tougher admis-sion standard will reduce the school's enrollment from its current level of 600 to 400. In 1978, it was 1,000. famu is a state-funded university.

The Southern Regional Education Board, a strong advocate of teacher-licensing tests, this spring will begin working with eight predominantly black colleges in the South to increase their faculties' use of test questions that require students to think analytically. "Too many of our students are only being asked to recall facts," said Mr. Gettone of South Carolina State College, one of the eight schools in the consortium.

Why are so many blacks failing the teacher-licensing examinations?

Observers suggest a number of contributing factors, including the fact that black college graduates now have more opportunities to enter other more prestigious and higher-paying fields; a history of poor elementary- and secondary-school training often combined with lower economic status; and low-caliber college training (including courses offered outside of the education school). The low test scores, many say, are a reminder that many blacks still suffer from the vestiges of segregation.

Others suggest that the tests are culturally biased, even intentionally discriminatory. In Alabama, the Alabama Education Association and the state's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is trying to get the use of the test declared unconstitutional in federal court.

Intentional Discrimination

In North Carolina, the U.S. Justice Department has reopened an eight-year-old suit against the state, arguing that it has intentionally used the examination to discriminate against blacks.

About 30 percent of the blacks who take the state-mandated National Teacher Examination fall into the bottom 5 percent of those taking the test nationwide. To pass the nte in North Carolina, students must rank above the fifth percentile. The failure rate among whites is about 2 percent. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld South Carolina's use of the National Teacher Examination as a requirement for teacher certification.

Vol. 02, Issue 17

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