Federal Court Upholds Calif. Licensing Exam

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California's mandatory teacher-licensing exam is a valid measure by which to assess educators' skills, despite charges that it is biased against minority test-takers, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, upheld the California Basic Educational Skills Test, known as CBEST, in a 7-4 decision handed down Oct. 30. (Mexican-American Educators v. State of California.)

"The CBEST is not intended to measure all the skills that are relevant to all the jobs for which it is required," Judge Susan Graber wrote for the majority. "It is intended to establish only a minimum level of competence in three areas of basic education."

The ruling by the 11-judge panel was the appeals court's second decision in favor of the test. A three- judge panel upheld the testing requirement last year.

A class of minority test-takers who have been fighting the exam since 1992 had argued that the test does not reflect the information teachers need to know on the job and that a performance-based system should be used instead. They cite high failing rates by minority candidates as evidence that the test is discriminatory.

The court's decision comes as California is searching desperately for qualified teachers, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin noted in an interview. The state needs to hire 30,000 additional educators over the next 10 years.

"CBEST is a reliable, valid test to assess basic skills of those who want to enter the profession," Ms. Eastin said.

But John T. Affeldt, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed with the decision.

"The content [of the test] has never been shown to be related to effective teaching performance," Mr. Affeldt said. "There are other measures out there that the state can use to ensure teachers can read and write."

Mr. Affeldt said his clients may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

High School Level

The closely watched class action, Mexican-American Educators v. State of California, was filed in 1992 by groups of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American professionals and by individual test-takers.

CBEST, which tests knowledge students are expected to have acquired in the 8th and 10th grades, has been given annually to thousands of teachers, counselors, and administrators since 1983 to determine their abilities in reading, writing, and mathematics. The test includes both multiple- choice and essay questions. It is given six times a year and can be retaken indefinitely.

The plaintiffs claimed that the test violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race or national origin. In addition, they asserted that the test was an invalid measure of teaching ability.

Mr. Affeldt continues to point to performance gaps between white test-takers and their minority colleagues as evidence that something is wrong with the test. Eighty percent of the white candidates who took the licensing exam between 1983 and 1995 passed on the first try, he said. Only 37 percent of African-Americans, 49 percent of Hispanics, and 53 percent of Asian-Americans passed the exam the first time.

The test has been rewritten since, but significant achievement gaps between whites and minorities remain, Mr. Affeldt added.

Nancy E. Rafuse, the co-counsel for the state in the case, took issue with the charge that the test is biased. "There was not a single expert who was prepared to testify or a plaintiff who took the test who found a question that was biased," she said. "Even if there is an impact [on minority test-takers], the court said that the test is a valid means for establishing the skills it tests for."

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote: "As a result of this ruling, qualified minority educators ... will be denied an opportunity to work in California's severely understaffed public schools, simply because they failed to pass a test that concededly has a disparate impact on minority-group members."

But Ms. Eastin said the solution is not to make the CBEST easier.

"Most parents would be appalled if we said that the way to get more people into the profession is to lower the standards," she said.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 26

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as Federal Court Upholds Calif. Licensing Exam
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