When Teachers Flunk

Trainee math teacher Shaw teaches class at George Washington Carver Middle School in Los Angeles. Standardized tests necessary for certification have increasingly come under fire for being discriminatory against blacks and Latinos. Photo illustartion; Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Let's say you're hoping to become a public school teacher in New York City. You have your master's degree, your chosen discipline, your arsenal of dry-erase markers. Now all that's left is to take the state's Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST), required for certification. On that exam, you may be asked questions based on a passage about Gertrude Stein or a discussion of ethanol production.

Some prospective teachers see such questions as perfectly reasonable measures of intellect and, as such, decent predictors of whether a person will become a good teacher. To others, though, the tests are discriminatory, stacked in favor of privileged white people who grew up in households where parents talked about Gertrude Stein and ethanol production. The tests may measure cultural capital, detractors say, but not teaching ability.

Some say the tests are inherently discriminatory against black and Hispanic teachers, an allegation bolstered at least in part by statistics: The New York Times notes that, last year, "only 41 percent of black and 46 percent of Hispanic candidates passed the test their first time, compared with 64 percent of their white counterparts." Nor is this merely a New York issue. The Times also found that on the Praxis Core test used widely around the nation, 55 percent of whites passed the math portion the first time around; only 21.5 percent of blacks and 35 percent of Hispanics had such success.

The trend is especially problematic because U.S. schools desperately need more black and Hispanic people to join the teaching corps, which has been far too white for far too long. A study of classrooms in Tennessee found that "the racial dynamics within classrooms may contribute to the persistent racial gap in student performance."

But is the need for greater racial parity in teaching such that we're willing to lower the standards? Is hiring teachers who can't pass a certification exam another form of discrimination, since it will be children of color who are more likely to have these supposedly less-qualified teachers in their classrooms? Or are teacher exams a poor predictor of who will become a good teacher? In other words, are we measuring irrelevant things?

These are the primary questions at the heart of a lawsuit, Gulino v. Board of Education, that concluded this month after 19 years in court. It was brought by minority teachers who argued that the New York state test does not "measure the knowledge, skills, and abilities of experienced teachers." They claimed to be competent teachers whose only shortcoming was a bad score on a single standardized test.

The case has been decided, piecemeal, by federal Judge Kimba M. Wood, on the 18th floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan. Her rulings have been complex and nuanced, allowing both sides some measure of victory. It is an outcome that will only stoke the debate over how to best measure the preparedness of prospective teachers.

In June, Wood ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the tests used in the past (three different variations of the New York state exam were being questioned, though only one of those is still in use today) were discriminatory, in part because they "assumed teachers should be required to demonstrate an understanding of the liberal arts" without first ascertaining what skills an archetypical teacher should possess. "These tests were not intended to evaluate an applicant's mastery of the particular subject area she might teach, or an applicant's capacity to respond to pedagogical challenges that might arise in the classroom." The test conflated, in the judge's opinion, the knowledge of stuff with the capacity to teach stuff to others.

One teacher who struggled with the exam is Israel Ramos, who was recently profiled in The New York Times. He got an education degree from Lehman College, in the Bronx, but failed his certification test three times. He told the Times he resorted to working as a substitute teacher, even after being offered permanent positions. "I had to turn them down because I lacked certification," he said. (Ramos eventually passed the test.)

Despite showing unstinting displeasure with earlier versions of the exam, Wood surprisingly ruled that the ALST—the test currently in use—is not discriminatory. In a decision released on August 7, Wood wrote that the ALST met "pedagogical and curricular standards...and thus was appropriately designed to ensure that only those applicants who possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to teach successfully may be hired to do so in New York's public schools." In other words, the current test is fair. Previous versions weren't.

In practical terms, that means the city's Department of Education could still be financially liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids employment discrimination, but only to those teachers who failed the first two versions of the test (the plaintiff class now includes nearly 4,000 people).

The bigger question, though, is what Wood's bifurcated ruling means for the quality of public school teachers, not only in New York but across the nation. To some, testing companies like Pearson and Educational Testing Service have too great a say in who enters the classroom. To others, though, the notion of lowering intellectual benchmarks to meet social goals is far more damaging.

"The more I know about standardized tests, the less I trust them," says education historian Diane Ravitch, a frequent critic of the rise of the standardized test as an educational tool and, more often, an educational bludgeon. "These tests have very low validity in predicting who will be a good teacher." Ravitch tells me that while teachers should pass "a basic-skills test," they need on-the-ground teaching experience, preferably with a master teacher.

For others, though, a fundamental part of teaching is simply the mastery of knowledge. "I tend to think it's important for teachers to know the content they teach, particularly in an area like math," says Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. "And I tend to doubt that math testing is 'culturally biased.' If teachers can't demonstrate minimal required knowledge of their content area—regardless of the sometimes invidious history of such instruments—that would seem to be a problem, no matter their skin color."

As far as it's possible to tell, the prospective teachers who've failed their tests have the requisite graduate degrees, which raises an obvious question about what are they learning in education schools. There follows another question, somewhat more uneasy, about whether education schools are attracting students not realistically suited to the teaching profession, merely in the hopes of reaping their tuition dollars.

Many education reformers are coming to the conclusion that if education schools are the gatekeepers of the classroom, then they've been far too lax regarding the promises they've made and the work they've actually done. In a 2006 report called "Educating School Teachers," Arthur Levine, former president of the Teachers College at Columbia University, noted that "too many justify low standards of admission on the grounds of providing opportunity and a door into the teaching profession for those who have been traditionally denied access." These schools "practice virtually open admissions," making no effort to select for students capable enough to become teachers. Worse yet, education schools are frequently regarded as a "low-quality tuition-dollar generator" by the greater institution.

Tellingly, a complaint about Wood's ruling on the ALST came from the former dean of the graduate education program at Mercy College, where only 28 percent of prospective teachers passed the ALST, according to the New York Post. At the prestigious Teachers College, the pass rate was 91 percent. "The ALST measures how eloquent a person is in the English language," the former Mercy dean told the Times after Wood ruled that the ALST was not discriminatory. "The question is, Is that one of the criterion for determining who will be a good teacher? My sense is that the answer is no."

The true loser here is the prospective teacher who has been fooled by an education school into thinking it will teach her to be a teacher. It's like a basketball scout inviting you to his training camp after witnessing a decent layup at the local playground. Sure, it'll set you back a couple thousand, he says, but you'll definitely be starting for the Lakers next season.

We all want good teachers for our children, but it turns out that good teachers aren't all that easy to define. Does it matter if a teacher can recite the "Out, out, brief candle!" soliloquy from Macbeth? Does it matter if a classroom of black students has a teacher who is black? Which of these two factors matters more? How do you measure what matters most in a classroom, anyway?

Dana Goldstein, author of the The Teacher Wars, says the issue of discrimination on teacher tests "confounds" her. "Academic rigor is crucial, yet so is teacher diversity," she says. With her ruling on the ALST, Wood seems to have given academic rigor the upper hand. For now.

This article is part of the Newsweek High School Rankings series. Read more:

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