Teacher Preparation

Should You Have to Pass a Literacy Test to Become a Teacher?

By Madeline Will — March 13, 2017 2 min read
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New York might soon get rid of the literacy exam requirement for prospective teachers, partly because a large amount of Hispanic and black candidates were failing it.

The Associated Press reported that the state Board of Regents is expected on Monday to vote to eliminate the Academic Literacy Skills Test, which was introduced in the 2013-14 school year as one of four assessments meant to raise the level of teaching in the state. But just 46 percent of Hispanic candidates and 41 percent of black candidates passed the literacy exam on the first try, compared with 64 percent of white candidates.

“Having a white workforce really doesn’t match our student body anymore,” said Leslie Soodak, an education professor from Pace University who was on the state task force that recommended eliminating the exam. She told the AP that the state still wants high standards for teachers, but a test that screens out so many nonwhite candidates might not be the best way to get there.

The test, which costs $131 to take (in addition to an optional $20 practice exam), is administered online and consists of multiple-choice questions about a series of reading selections, as well as a written section. The test’s critics say that in addition to the test being prohibitively expensive, it doesn’t reflect what teachers actually do in the classroom, and that it is redundant considering everything else prospective teachers must pass—including the SAT, the GRE, and subject-matter certification tests. Meanwhile, defenders of the test say that it is necessary to maintain teacher quality.

One such defender is the National Council on Teacher Quality, which has called for higher standards for teachers. President Kate Walsh told the AP that the assessments in New York’s teacher certification process, including this literacy exam, “really got at the lack of rigor in teacher prep.”

My colleague Brenda Iasevoli reported in November on an NCTQ report that cites survey data suggesting that most top college students would consider majoring in education if admissions standards were higher. Instead of lowering standards to battle teacher shortages and decreasing enrollments, education schools should keep quality high, the report concludes.

And in a recent opinion essay for Education Week, Lawrence Baines, an associate dean at the University of Oklahoma, bemoaned the “continual dumbing-down of the preparation of teachers.” He wrote: “The biggest losers here are the children in American classrooms. A child taught by an effective teacher develops a stronger work ethic, has a better chance of going to college, and earns a higher salary as an adult, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Still, the New York exam might not be the appropriate measure of teacher quality, the AP reported. Charles Sahm, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, took the practice exam and told the AP that it was a poorly designed assessment, since the multiple-choice questions seemed to have more than one correct answer.

“I found the reading comprehension section to be kind of infuriating,” he said. “I only got 21 out of 40 right.”

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.