Teacher Preparation

What Will It Take to Align Teacher Prep to the Science of Reading? California Offers Clues

By Sarah Schwartz — January 23, 2024 7 min read
Female teacher reads to multi-cultural elementary school students sitting on floor in class at school
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The most populous state in the nation is revamping how it credentials teachers to teach reading, replacing a test that has served as a controversial gatekeeper for teacher-candidates for more than 25 years.

This shift in California comes as dozens of states are attempting to align their teacher-preparation programs to the research behind how kids learn to read. The debate around this decision in the Golden State is a microcosm of the issues arising from this process across the country.

In 2021, California passed a law that ends the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, or RICA in summer 2025—a test that has been praised by some as a strong evaluation of future teachers’ knowledge of the “science of reading,” but criticized by many as an outdated, biased hurdle that keeps otherwise qualified candidates out of the classroom.

The test will be replaced with a performance assessment, which a group of universities are gearing up to pilot this spring.

The law also requires that preparation programs align their coursework to new literacy standards by summer 2024. The standards mandate the teaching of evidence-based approaches to foundational reading skills and incorporate the California Dyslexia Guidelines, a roadmap for identifying and teaching dyslexic students developed by the state’s department of education in 2017.

Unlike the RICA, which most candidates take as a standardized test, the new assessment will ask teachers to demonstrate teaching early reading in classrooms, a process that will “serve to strengthen and deepen a prospective teacher’s knowledge and skill,” Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said in an emailed statement.

But some dyslexia advocates have raised concerns about whether the state’s new approach will ensure all candidates are prepared to teach reading—and how university instructors will be held accountable for meeting the new literacy standards.

Though about half of all states have required that programs follow evidence-based methods or that students pass a certification test aligned to the science of reading, imposing these mandates on universities challenges long-held traditions of academic freedom. They’re also notoriously difficult to enforce.

Still, there’s growing momentum within the field, said Kelly Butler, a senior adviser to Reading Universe, a site that offers free resources for reading teachers. Butler formerly led the Barksdale Reading Institute, a nonprofit that worked to improve the quality of reading education in Mississippi.

“More and more states are recognizing that things need to change within teacher preparation. There is a growing awareness and willingness to do work around that,” she said. “I would like to get to a place where teacher-preparation programs are owning this themselves, and leading this parade, rather than being dragged to the table.”

A certification test is ‘one little juncture’ in the pipeline

The RICA was born out of a previous push to align reading instruction with evidence-based practice, more than two decades ago.

In the 1990s, California began to pass legislation requiring phonics instruction, a backlash to the rise of whole language in the state in the 1970s and 80s—an approach that emphasizes immersing students in books, with little direct instruction.

Starting in 1998, elementary and some middle school teacher candidates were expected to pass the RICA, a standardized test that assesses detailed knowledge in phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, as well as vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and background knowledge. California was the first state to require that elementary teachers pass a standalone test in reading instruction.

In the intervening decades, the RICA has been the target of sustained criticism from different camps.

While the test does include crucial knowledge for future teachers of reading, it can also become a roadblock for students with disabilities, said Marga Madhuri, a professor in the University of La Verne’s LaFetra College of Education in La Verne, Calif., and the chair of the college’s dyslexia teacher training program. She remembered one candidate who himself had dyslexia, and had to take the test eight times before he passed and was accredited to teach 8th grade science.

University faculty and K-12 educators have also claimed that the test is racially biased. Between 2017 and 2022, 78 percent of white test-takers passed the RICA on their first attempt, compared to 48 percent of African American and 53 percent of Latino test-takers. (Over time, 91 percent of white candidates pass after multiple attempts, compared to 68 percent of African American and 74 percent of Latino candidates.)

Others argue that the problem lies not with the test itself, but with teacher-preparation programs that don’t adequately prepare students to master its content.

“From what I can see in the past, the [California Commission on Teacher Credentialing] hasn’t done a thorough job of holding teacher-preparation programs accountable,” said Lori DePole, the co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia California. “So it’s really hard to know what the reasoning is behind low pass rates.”

The new test is similar in format to other performance-based assessments already given in California, said Christiane Wood, an associate professor of literacy education at California State University San Marcos, one of the pilot sites this spring. These portfolio assessments ask candidates to plan lessons, videotape teaching, and reflect on practice.

The new format will ensure that students have deep knowledge of early literacy skills, and that they can apply that knowledge in their classrooms, said Erika Daniels, a professor of literacy education at the same university.

But DePole worries that the CTC may not set the bar high enough for passing this exam. Universities may not fully integrate the state’s new literacy standards, preventing candidates from accessing the information that they would need to do well on a credentialing test, she fears.

Like other states, California periodically assesses whether programs meet these standards, but historically, most states haven’t taken strong steps to correct lapses.

“You can have the greatest standards out there, but if you’re not adequately enforcing them, and you’re not also helping to support institutes of higher education where perhaps the faculty aren’t up to date on science of reading, that’s the missing link,” she said.

A credentialing test is only “one little juncture” in the teacher-preparation pipeline, said Butler. To ensure that candidates are prepared to teach reading, programs need to focus on aligning instruction, too, she added.

Universities take different approaches to new standards

Some instructors say that their programs already meet these new standards—a requirement to participate in the new assessment pilot program.

“When we dug into it, we saw that we were already doing everything that they were asking us to implement in our literacy courses,” said Wood. (The university’s graduate program in reading received an F rating in 2023 from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which reviews programs for alignment to evidence-based practices. NCTQ’s methodology has received criticism.)

Wood sees the performance-based assessment as an opportunity to incorporate other methods of teaching beginning reading skills.

“[The RICA] only really assesses one method of how to teach literacy: explicit, scaffolded instruction,” she said. “The gradual release of responsibility—that’s the only approach the RICA takes.”

The new assessment will demonstrate what candidates know about teaching foundational skills “in not just one way, in other ways,” Wood said, noting that it would allow for the integration of vocabulary instruction and best practices for teaching English learners.

Research has long demonstrated that systematic, explicit instruction is the most effective way to help children learn how to read words. But some university professors have pushed back against what they see as a one-size-fits-all approach.

At other institutions, instructors are in the process of overhauling their courses.

A few years before the new standards were released, the LaFetra College of Education at the University of La Verne started to rethink how it approached teaching about dyslexia. The school brought in national experts and retooled its courses, said Madhuri.

“We thought it was going to be a brush-up on our skills, but it was a crash course,” she said. Faculty have continued revisions in light of the new literacy standards.

Still, she’s heard from colleagues at other universities who have told her they’re planning to tweak written course materials, but continue teaching as they have before. And she worries that it may be difficult for many colleges to fit the deep dive on early literacy practices that the standards require into one or two semesters.

Madhuri would like to see the new performance-based assessment align closely with the standards, which she thinks are rigorous and supportive of evidence-based practice.

“There will be no tears shed now that the RICA is gone,” she said.

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