Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

We Need More Teachers of Color. Let’s Scrap Exams That Keep Them Out of the Classroom

By Emery Petchauer — May 07, 2019 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Students of color seldom see teachers who look like them. This is in large part because many aspiring teachers of color are pushed out of the profession before they have a chance to start. It’s not poor performance in college courses or teaching internships that take the biggest toll. It is the standardized tests aspiring teachers must pass to become a teacher. These exams are designed to function as a gatekeeper of teacher quality, but important issues suggest it’s time to rethink their role in the profession.

A recent report estimates that each year, the exams screen out approximately 8,600 of 16,900 aspiring teachers of color. That exclusion rate is 27.5 percent higher than for white aspiring teachers. It is not a new phenomenon, either. This trend has been documented on “professional readiness exams” for nearly a decade and originated in the 1960s when states began adopting such exams as regular practice. Their function over time is one reason why teachers of color make up only 18 percent of the teaching profession when students of color make up over half of the U.S. school population.

For my book, Navigating Teacher Licensure Exams, I explored what it’s like for aspiring teachers of color to take these exams. In one chapter, I focus on test takers who failed their licensure exam multiple times before eventually passing and becoming teachers. I found they passed by learning time-saving test-taking strategies, taking the exam in situations in settings where they felt least stressed, and by cutting themselves off from negative messages about the exam. They also concentrated on a narrow slice of material that they did not know well. In all, what it took to pass the exam resembled little of what makes a powerful teacher today.

What Exams Reveal

It’s important to ask more broadly if these exams tell us who will be an effective teacher. This is like asking if a person’s 40-yard dash time tells us if they will make a good football player. Sprinting is part of the sport, but so is throwing, catching, and tackling. And the importance of each action depends on the position a person plays.

A similar point applies to teaching. Effective teachers know the content they teach. But they also know how to build healthy relationships with students, work effectively under constraints, leverage community assets, and create learning experiences connected to students’ realities.

The research shows these exams are a murky indicator of how effective an aspiring teacher will be. The exams tend to screen people out of the profession who might not be effective math teachers—think of the person so clumsy they can’t even finish the 40-yard dash—but the evidence is less clear for reading. More troubling, research has shown that requiring higher scores would keep out substantial numbers of people who would otherwise be effective, and only screen out a fraction of a percent of those who would be ineffective.

What’s more, research in this area is based on linking teachers’ licensure exams scores with students’ standardized test scores in reading and math—a narrow gauge of the learning that happens in schools.

There are more alarming problems with the exams when it comes to racial diversity. First, research also shows the accuracy of these exams can change depending on the race and gender of the test taker and the kinds of questions asked. For example, on some exams, multiple-choice questions seem to be better predictors of teacher quality for white women teachers. Conversely, essay questions appear better for African-American teachers.

Research shows that other factors can easily make up for a weakness that a licensure exam signals. For instance, racial match matters for students of color. Having a black teacher—despite that teacher’s poor performance on a licensure exam—can make an equivalent impact on reading and math scores as having a white teacher who performed well on the exam.

Breaking the Testing Addiction

Why do state systems of education lean so confidently on these exams when such evidence should give pause? A deep and abiding addiction to them.

When modern standardized tests developed in the 1920s, they were a brand new technology with much allure. They promised to sort large groups of people into neat categories so the military, immigration system, and schools could make easy decisions. They gave the broader public a false sense of security, that somehow the exams were measuring a kind of innate intelligence. This line of thinking and use of exams, however, can be traced to the eugenics movement, a racist pseudoscience that sorts humans into crude subgroups. With such a history, perhaps we should not be surprised that licensure exams restrict the racial diversity of the profession.

A growing number of colleges have broken the broader addiction to standardized tests by no longer requiring them for college admission. Similarly, it is time for states to rethink how they admit teachers to the profession. For instance, states could consider a range of materials that give a more comprehensive view of a prospective teacher’s abilities rather than letting a single licensure exam score trump everything. Performance assessments in context and community-based evaluations are natural starting points here. Each of these practices would support a more racially diverse teaching profession without sacrificing teacher quality.

Critics may say that moving away from these exams would dumb down the profession. But the future young people need will not be ushered into existence by teachers who bubble in the right circles or write essays in a two-hour window of time. It will be created by teachers who can solve problems collaboratively with other educators in the midst of constraints that would isolate them. It will be created by teachers who can design learning experiences that help students create solutions to real-world problems that impact their lives. Well-funded schools with healthy working conditions will enable this work.

Teachers of color will help lead the way toward these changes. They should not be tested out of the profession before they get this chance.

Related Tags:

This essay was previously published in The Conversation.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession The Teaching Profession Is 'Crumbling': What Can School Leaders Do to Help?
Longstanding problems are more urgent as schools struggle to meet students' emotional and academic needs.
4 min read
Conceptual Image of a teacher feeling low
Delmaine Donson/E+
Teaching Profession Q&A 'Brown v. Board' Decimated the Black Educator Pipeline. A Scholar Explains How
A new book digs into a lesser-known and negative consequence of one of the nation's most significant civil rights milestones.
9 min read
As her pupils bend themselves to their books, teacher Marie Donnelly guides them along in their studies at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, New York, Sept. 28, 1959. In her 40 years of teaching, never has Donnelly had so many African-American students in a class. The youngsters were bused to the school from Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood where schools are overcrowded. P.S. 77, which had an enrollment of 368 all-white students, can handle 1000 children comfortably. Parents in the Queens neighborhoods objected to influx, but the children themselves adjusted to one another without incident.
A white teacher teaches a newly integrated class at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, N.Y., in September 1959.
AP
Teaching Profession Opinion Short On Substitute Teachers? Here's Something States Can Do
Student teachers can make good substitutes, but the rules often don't allow them to step in, write two researchers.
Dan Goldhaber & Sydney Payne
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a new employee fitting into the workplace puzzle
Sergey Tarasov/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I'm Afraid to Return to the Classroom': A Gay Teacher of the Year Speaks Out
Willie Carver, Jr., the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, is questioning his future as a teacher given recent anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts.
8 min read
Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week