Fewer teacher candidates pass basic skills test

Print More

The number of prospective teachers passing the basic skills test needed to get into education colleges has decreased dramatically, especially for Latino and black candidates, since an increase in passing scores was instituted in September. The sharp decline has set off alarms among some advocates and state lawmakers.

The number of prospective teachers passing the basic skills test needed to get into education colleges decreased dramatically, especially for Latino and black candidates, since an increase in passing scores was instituted in September. The sharp decline has set off alarms among some advocates and state lawmakers.

Overall, the number of candidates who passed the exam dropped from 85 percent in previous years to 22 percent in September. Three percent of black test takers passed, down from 56 percent, and 7 percent of Latinos, down from 68 percent. 

State officials say that the October rates were better, with about 45 percent of test-takers passing, perhaps due to people re-taking the portions of the test that they failed.

“It’s going to have a devastating disparate racial impact,” says State Representative Paul Froehlich (D-Schaumburg), who is retiring this year. Froehlich and others are worried that  if black and Latino teachers can’t get into schools of education, the ultimate result will be fewer teachers of color. “That is something none of us wants,” he says.

When these results were presented at a Tuesday hearing of the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education, members panicked, Froehlich says. Representatives from ENLACE, Action Now, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and Grow Your Own Teachers attended the hearing in Springfield. So did Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Froehlich says the committee knew that the Illinois State Board of Education had approved a cut score increase, but were not aware of how dramatic it was. To pass, students must now get 75 percent correct in math, up from 35 percent, and 85 percent in reading and language arts, up from 50 percent. The fourth area, writing, is rated on a 12-point scale and now candidates must get an eight, up from a five.

Froehlich says it might have been better to make incremental increases. 

Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, says that the increase in cut scores was approved last December and only went into effect in September. Also, in February of last year, ISBE decided to cap the number of times that candidates e can take the test at five. In the past, it was unlimited. 

State officials knew there would be a decrease in those passing the test, but, to mitigate it, they have been working with schools of education and community colleges to make sure students are ready for the test, Fergus says. She adds that students now only have to retake the portion of the test that hey failed, rather than the entire test.

The impetus behind increasing the cut score was to make sure that teachers are better prepared for teaching, especially as the move is underway to make classrooms more rigorous. 

“It is important to have strong standards,” Fergus says. 

But some question whether there’s any correlation between being able to pass the basic skills test and the ability to be a good teacher. Karen Lewis was on the Illinois State Board’s certification committee last year when the change was made.

At the time, Lewis didn’t think the increase in cut scores would be devastating. When she took the test, she found it easy and she thought candidates would adapt, she says.

What she didn’t know is that, in 2001, the rigor of the basic skills test was increased from an 8th-grade level to an 11th-grade level. 

Lewis says it doesn’t much matter if a 2nd-grade reading teacher can do 11th-grade math. “It doesn’t stop you from being an effective teacher,” she says.

Lewis is particularly worried about the racial implications of the decline in pass rates. “Teaching cannot be a white, upper-middle-class profession,” she says.

 Juliana Paz, Grow Your Own Coordinator at ENLACE Chicago, says ENLACE is looking into the possibility of advocating for other ways of evaluating pre-service teachers – for instance, the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium which evaluates the quality of lessons given by student teachers. 

“All teachers should have… basic foundations of math and reading, but what’s getting tested in the basic skills test – pre-calculus – is not something that a second-grade teacher or a kindergarten teacher is going to need,” Paz says.