If you’re a literalist, one who solely focuses on quantifiable data points and rigid adherence to arbitrary test-score cutoffs, you might take a glance at a bill working its way through the Legislature that would ease the basic skills assessment requirements for acceptance into teacher training programs with some skepticism, if not outright alarm.
What, those people might ask, are we so desperate for teachers in Washington state that we’re seeking to dumb down test scores? Have we no standards anymore?
The response from an overwhelming number of educators and officials, from as high up as the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Gov. Jay Inslee himself, is that, regardless of the real teacher-shortage crisis at hand, using a single standardize test to determine someone’s qualifications is a flawed system that needs reform.
Which is why the House recently unanimously passed HB1621, sponsored by 13th District Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, that would still require teacher-program applicants to take the test but not have the results be the sole determinant for acceptance. The bill now is being heard in the Senate, where, barring unforeseen glitches, it also is expected to easily pass and await certain signing by Inslee.
Make this clear, though: The standardized test isn’t going away. All prospective students would still take it, but its import would be lessened. “And, at the end of the day,” Ybarra said, “candidates will still have to complete the teacher prep program, the content knowledge assessment and the performance assessment before they can be certified to teach.”
Hence, no dumbing-down, merely a branching out.
Tons of research has been conducted showing that standardized tests, from the SATs to GREs, are not an accurate gauge of a student’s preparedness for academic success. That’s for a variety of reasons, including that the exams are deemed discriminatory against students of color or those from low-income families.
But while the aforementioned tests serve as only part of a university’s assessment of candidates for undergraduate or graduate programs — along with grade-point average, essays and public service — teacher-preparatory exams rely on the one metric: the entrance exam.
As Ybarra, who has served on the Quincy school board since 2011, correctly pointed out during debate on the bill, a standardized test used as a single predictor of one’s knowledge and skills is fraught with all-or-nothing stakes that fail to account for a student’s “holistic” skill set.
“You have to take a test and, if you have a bad day, a bad score, I don’t think that’s representative of what a particular candidate is like,” he said. “Instead of being tied to a single test, (universities) can look at work experience, volunteerism, GPA and other relevant skills. This would encourage more people to apply for these programs.”
Demoting the test from its status as the be-all and end-all of admittance certainly would enlarge the pool of prospective teachers. A recent report showed the state has 820 unfilled teacher positions, and a record 9,251 partially trained teachers working on emergency credentials. That’s a tripling of the number of partially certified teachers the state employed in 2012.
The bill also has been touted as a boon to teacher diversity. Statewide, only 16.6 percent of teachers are of color, whereas nearly 50 percent of students fit that demographic category.
Ybarra and Justin Montermini, government relations specialist for the Professional Educator Standards Board, say the bill will most help older, so-called “nontraditional” students seeking to change careers after many years away from classroom instruction. Those folks might feel intimidated to have all their hopes hinge on a single standardized test and feel that their life experiences do not matter.
The change of policy is geared “for the folks who are not high school students,” Ybarra said during hearings. “They’re more like older adults who are stay-at-home moms and dads, or they’re folks who work in the industry (e.g., paraeducators) and want to do something different.”
And, yes, the elimination of a minimum test score to gain entrance would encourage more minority applicants. Krissy Kim, the director of education programs at Pierce College, told lawmakers a story about a bright student of color who came to the United States during her high school years, graduated with strong grades and participated in the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program — all with the goal of getting accepted into a teacher preparatory program.
“She took the (standardized) writing test nine times, at a cost of $75 each time,” Kim said. “She spent countless hours in the college tutoring center. The hits to her self-esteem were huge, her sense of ‘Do I belong in this field?’ She said, ‘I already don’t see people who look like me and now I get a test validating that I don’t belong.’”
The student eventually passed the test and gained entrance. For others in similar circumstances, passage of HB1621 will make the process easier and help mitigate the dearth of teachers in the state.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.