Last week, a federal judge ruled that one of the four licensing exams that aspiring teachers in New York state must pass does not discriminate against minorities.
Judge Kimba M. Wood ruled that the state and the testing company that helped devise the exam, Pearson, had properly ensured that the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) “is representative of the content of a New York state public-school teacher’s job.”
Indeed, the ALST is rigorous – it requires reading complex informational and narrative texts and then demonstrating, through both multiple-choice and written responses, “the ability to determine what a text says explicitly and consistently make logical inferences and draw conclusions based on evidence found in the text.”
The reading materials are challenging, but these should be doable for college graduates. Sample practice questions provided in the extensive, multimedia online learning guide include texts like “Should Congress Reassess the Renewable Fuel Standard in the Energy Independence and Security Act?” and “The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It.”
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And the performance standards they assess are basic – they are quite similar to learning standards for reading for K-12 under old curricular guidelines and certainly reflect new Common Core learning standards, which put a heavy emphasis on literacy.
It’s reasonable to expect that those tasked with teaching students how to read, make logical inferences and then write about what they’ve just absorbed should be expected to demonstrate these same abilities themselves as college graduates.
Obviously you would also want a teacher to have a rock-solid foundation in his or her subject area, have a deep understanding of the special needs of diverse student populations, be able to improve student achievement (this is what the other three New York licensing exams assess). But being able to read a given text and display comprehension is undoubtedly fundamental.
Yet many people insist that teacher-licensing tests are discriminatory simply because minorities pass them at lower rates.
To illustrate, The New York Times recently reported that well-known math and science educator Alfred S. Posamentier “did not consider the test to be a strong indicator of who would be a good teacher, and that his Hispanic faculty members in particular said they found the test to be discriminatory.” Students at Mercy College, where until recently he was a dean, passed the test at a lower rate than the statewide average.
Posamentier said that while it was important to be a clear, literate communicator, “the ALST measures how eloquent a person is in the English language. The question is, is that one of the criterion for determining who will be a good teacher?” he said. “My sense is that the answer is no.”
Shocked, I contacted Posamentier, who has also been a dean at City College of New York. He told me his comments were misrepresented.
“If you’re looking to ensure that the teaching profession is fulfilled by properly literate people who can read and write well, there should be a test that does so – but does not prejudice against people who are nonscientifically minded,” Posamentier said, noting he felt that the sample questions he’d seen were too technical in nature for non-science or math majors. “You have to define what kind of literacy you expect from teachers, then create a test to match up to that level of literacy – that’s regardless of their race or language.”
This is a far cry from saying that the ability to use language clearly and effectively is not a bare minimum for being allowed into a classroom.
The truth is that black and Hispanic children in this country are disproportionately taught by less-experienced, lower-paid teachers, and research has found that white teachers, who make up over 80 percent of the teacher corps, expect less of black and Hispanic students.
Under no circumstances must we expect less of our minority students or our minority teachers.
If we seek to lower the bar because of a perception that teacher licensing tests are “too hard” for minority teachers, we will continue to perpetrate separate and unequal education on minorities in this country.
Instead of simply getting upset about minorities’ inability to pass challenging exams, we must focus on expecting – and helping – them to attain academic achievement on par with whites.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @estherjcepeda.