For the Record: Teacher basic skills test

July 27, 2012

Despite plummeting pass rates, the Illinois State Board of Education recently held the line on the rigorous cut-off scores on the basic skills test for prospective teachers. The scores were raised back in September 2010, causing many to fail, especially minority candidates. 

Earlier this year, ISBE updated the test, which is now longer and aligned with the Common Core Standards that the state has adopted as new, tougher learning goals for K-12 education.  

The latest test results show that African American and Latino students are still having a harder time passing the exam, which candidates must pass to enroll in a college of education. In the round of testing from April, 28 percent of black students and 33 percent of Latinos passed the reading subtest. For whites and Asians, the pass rates were 52 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

The results were similar for the tests in language arts and mathematics. In writing, though the overall pass rates were higher, the racial gap remains: 62 percent of black students, 84 percent of Latinos, 93 percent of white students and 100 percent of Asians passed the writing portion of the test.

ISBE said its goal in raising the bar for the test—which it says is at an 11th-grade level—was to ensure that candidates are better prepared for the classroom and able to teach more rigorous content. But the racial disparity has raised a red flag for educators and others, including some state lawmakers, who want to bring more teachers of color into the profession.

The cut-off scores are now 85 percent in both reading and language arts, up from 50 percent, and 75 percent in math, up from 35 percent. In writing, which is rated on a 12-point scale, candidates must get 8 points, up from 5. Candidates can re-take the portions of the exam that they failed up to five times; previously, students could re-take the test an unlimited number of times.

Overall, the number of students to pass the test since the new standards were put in place now stands at 41 percent.

Illinois isn’t the only state to deal with this issue. Across the nation, states are re-examining the cut-off scores on basic-skills tests and licensing exams. The question is how states will raise the bar without affecting minorities wanting to enter the teaching profession.