The Illinois legislature has approved a proposal that would require most aspiring teachers to pass a basic-skills test before entering colleges’ teacher education programs, a standard that could set one of the earliest such deadlines in the country.
Sponsored by Sen. Dan Cronin, a Republican, and other lawmakers, the measure also would make most would-be teachers pass exams in their subject areas before they began student teaching.
After sweeping through the House and the Senate with little resistance and with bipartisan backing, Senate Bill 1953 now awaits the signature of Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, who has not indicated if he will support the bill.
If it becomes law, the measure will likely force most college students hoping to become certified as precollegiate instructors to take tests before their junior years—the time when most of them begin teacher- preparation courses.
“It sends a message to those who aspire to be teachers, that the state is serious about having quality, skilled, teachers,” said Don Sevener, a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which represents colleges and universities. “Whenever you have teachers unable to pass a basic-skills test, that’s a problem.”
The requirement for basic-skills testing is to take effect this academic year, and rule for subject-area exams would take place in the 2004-05 academic year. Most aspiring instructors would have to take the specialized subject exams before their senior years, when most of them begin student teaching.
Under current Illinois law, most people hoping to teach must pass both the basic-skills and subject tests sometime before they are certified to teach—which means they can take the exams even after they’ve graduated from college. There are exceptions to the testing requirements, however, including for bilingual instructors, substitute teachers, and those who became teachers before the current testing law took effect in 1988.
The new legislation emerged after a series of articles in the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that thousands of teachers in Illinois schools had failed the state’s basic-skills test, which used to measure students at about an 8th or 9th grade level. In 2001, that exam was revamped, and it now tests students at the standard of a college sophomore, according to officials with the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The newspaper also reported that a higher percentage of teachers who struggled with the previous tests were given jobs in schools in the most disadvantaged areas, particularly in Chicago and East St. Louis, Ill.
While Mr. Sevener and other education officials in Illinois believed the problem of failing teachers in Illinois was limited, they agreed it could be improved. About 5 percent of 200,657 college students who took the basic-skills test since 1988 failed on their first attempt, and 7 percent failed the subject tests, according to data from the state education department.
Twanna Latrice Hill of the Education Commission of the States said she was not aware of any other states that required tests for teachers before they began their training in college.
“It seems to be a little unique, compared to what other states are doing,” said Ms. Hill, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan research organization, based in Denver.
It is not uncommon, she said, for individual universities—without being compelled by the state—to make basic-skills tests a requirement for students entering their teaching programs. Some Illinois colleges have such requirements as well.
Much like the proposed Illinois requirements, the current requirements for skills testing in the state are waived for many teachers such as those who hold substitute or temporary teaching certificates. Bilingual instructors can teach for up to six years, and in some cases eight, without full-time certificates.
A spokesman for Gov. Ryan, Ray Serati, said the administration would have no comment on the legislation until a final decision had been made on whether to support it.
But the proposal has drawn the backing of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, spokeswoman Gail Purkey said.
“This is a classic example of something logical to make sure people have basic skills in their subject areas before they step in a classroom,” said Ms. Purkey, whose union, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, represents about 85,000 teachers and other school staff members. “We felt this was a good way to go.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Illinois Bill Stiffens Testing Rules For Aspiring Teachers