To boost teacher diversity, state scraps limits on basic skills test-taking

March 12, 2014

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) voted on Wednesday to scrap a policy established just four years ago that set a limit on the number of times prospective teachers could take the required basic skills tests.

The decision is aimed at eliminating a barrier for minority college students who want to enter the teaching profession, but tend to fare worse on exams than their white counterparts.

State school board president Gery Chico said the state needs to “manipulate the pipeline” of teachers in order to increase the disproportionately small number of African American and Latino educators in Illinois schools.

“When you have a student body like ours, nobody is looking for perfect parity but we have to improve,” he said. “You have to have some reflection of what the student body looks like.”

Half of students in Illinois public schools are white, but close to 84 percent of their teachers are white, according to state records.

In Chicago Public Schools, 86 percent of students, but less than half of teachers, are black or Latino. Catalyst Chicago wrote about the lack of diversity in the teaching force in 2011The problem has worsened in recent years, as veteran black educators have lost their jobs with the advent of more school closings, turnarounds that overhaul entire faculties, and other actions. In addition, as the percentage of Latino students has soared to 44 percent, Latino teachers remain a paltry 18 percent of CPS teachers.

 “So many people are not passing” 

 In January 2010, the state set a five-attempt limit on the number of times teacher candidates could take each of the four portions of the Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP). But many candidates-- especially black and Latino students – found it challenging to pass all of the exam’s components in five tries or less, especially after the state adopted higher cut-off scores in September 2010.

Test result data from the fourth quarter of 2013,  for example, showed that only 18 percent of blacks and 23 percent of Latinos passed the math portion of the test, compared to 40 percent of whites. Meanwhile, only 26 percent of blacks and 34 percent of Latinos met the reading comprehension requirements, compared to 52 percent of whites.

Overall, less than a third of all test-takers – and less than 18 percent of black and Latinos -- passed all four sections of the test last year, according to state records.

“So many people are not passing these tests,” says Anne Hallett, director of Grow Your Own Teachersan organization that seeks to diversify the teaching workforce. “Lots of factors are troubling about standardized tests, from test anxiety to [the quality of] your own education leading up to the time you took the test. If it’s been less than sterling, it makes it more difficult to pass these tests.”

Hallett added that students who speak English as a second language face additional challenges when taking standardized tests. Plus, many people have difficulties with math.

“If you’ve taken [the test] four times, then you’re now facing a limit which puts yet another stressor on the test taking,” Hallett says.

Until recently, state law required that prospective teachers pass the TAP before entering an education program. Now, schools have the discretion to allow students into an education program before they’ve passed the exam, although candidates must still pass it before their student teaching.

The state also waives the tests for students who have high scores on the ACT or SAT.

The decision to do away with the cap on test-taking attempts stemmed out of an ISBE meeting last fall on diversifying the state’s teaching workforce, says Jason Helfer, the state’s assistant superintendent on teacher and leader effectiveness.

During two subsequent meetings in February, ISBE staff spoke with administrators of college education programs, as well as young teachers of color, about how to improvement minority recruitment.

Helfer noted one difference in the two groups’ opinions: “Faculty thought of recruitment and support in terms of program elements, [but] the young teachers thought of recruitment and support in terms of individual relationships.”

In order to continue the conversation, ISBE has convened an advisory group on recruiting a more diverse teaching workforce that will meet periodically and share its work with the state.