THE BLOG

Teacher Certification SNAFU: Judge Rules NYS Exams are Racially Biased

06/18/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

SNAFU: An acronym dating from World War II. Situation Normal, All F*cked Up.

I have been a teacher and teacher educator for over forty years. One of the things I learned is that some people should not be teachers. They may lack empathy for young people, be impatient, have trouble connecting with other people, have too many biases of their own, be unwilling to put in the hard work to master the craft, or have their own emotional problems or academic issues. I have met smart and knowledgeable people who could not teach effectively. I have also met people who struggled academically in school who are very good working with young people. Another thing I learned is that while there are many reasons some people should not be teachers, most of these are not measured by teacher certification exams that concentrate on academic skills.

The New York State Education Department is now in legal trouble. So is my old "frenemy" Pearson Education that creates teacher certification exams for New York State. While Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch push a regime of high-stakes testing for students and teachers and an increasingly difficult series of exams for candidates for teacher certification, the exams have been under attack on many fronts by parents and teachers. In addition, in a highly unusual move, seven members of the seventeen member Board of Regents signed an open letter demanding that the Regents delay the implementation of teacher evaluation system demanded by the Governor and approved by the state legislature. What a SNAFU!

But the most serious challenge to the high-stakes testing regime may be by Judge Kimba Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan. Wood ruled that exams developed by a Pearson sub-division and used by New York State to evaluate teaching candidates was racially discriminatory. The pass rate for African-American and Latino candidates on the exams was as low as half the pass rate for White candidates. According to Judge Wood, once this was established, the State Education Department had to demonstrate that the exams actually measure the skills required to be a teacher. Since it did not, the exams are invalid. Another SNAFU!

According to Wood, the National Evaluation Systems (NES), now called Evaluation Systems and part of Pearson Education, went about the process of creating the Liberal Arts and Sciences test (LAST) backwards. "Instead of beginning with ascertaining the job tasks of New York teachers, the two LAST examinations began with the premise that all New York teachers should be required to demonstrate an understanding of the liberal arts." In addition, while NES sent surveys to educators around New York in an effort to demonstrate that the LAST's "content objectives" were relevant to teaching, the sample was too small to establish the validity of the tests. Note Kimba Wood is far from a radical left-wing judicial activist. President Ronald Reagan nominated Wood to the federal bench in 1988 on the recommendation of New York State Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato.

New York State's Pearson exams are not the only ones under attack. According to the New York Times, Praxis Core, widely used teacher certification tests created and administered by the Education Testing Service (ETS), have also produced racially disparate results. Fifty-five percent of White candidates passed the math part of the test on their first try, but only thirty-five percent of Hispanic test takers and less than twenty-five percent of African-Americans. There appears to be similar scoring differentials on other parts of the test as well.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits both intentional discrimination and hiring and evaluation practices that disproportionately exclude minority group members, women, immigrants, or members of different religious groups, if the policies cannot be demonstrated to be directed job related. Poor performance by racial and ethnic minorities on teacher certification tests can be the result of many factors. The tests may be discriminatory or we may be seeing the impact of unequal education from pre-k through college. In either case, under federal law states are obligated to show that its teacher certification tests measure the ability to be a teacher and are not just being used to keep people out of the profession.

The New York State Education Department is now in the process of reevaluating all of its teacher certification exams. At its May meeting, the Board of Regents, the governing body for New York State schools, approved a series of "safety nets" that allow students who fail tests to secure certification through alternative routes. Some candidates who initially failed the Educating All Students exam have already been notified by email that their score on the test was changed from fail to pass.

I have a three-step suggestion for the New York State Board of Regents.

Step 1 - Fire Pearson. Pearson tests are disasters. Texas just fired Pearson, which had had a sole contract for designing tests with its state education department since 1980. Pearson also just lost a major texting contract in California to ETS.

Step II - Design tests that measure necessary teacher knowledge. Possibilities include the ability to read, interpret, and explain Common Core academic skill standards, state content area frameworks, and the guidelines for teaching students with special needs and English Language Learners. Teachers should also be able to score well on student exit exams in their certification areas. They should at least know what students are expected to know.

Step III - Design assessments that establish minimum teaching standards for beginning teachers. They should distinguish between where you should be at the start of your career and where you should be after three-to-five years of practice. I am a major critic of current New York State teacher certification exams especially the edTPA. The edTPA is a complex portfolio with a video that requires student teachers to submit evidence of teaching proficiency that would be challenging for experienced teachers. In addition, grading requirements for the edTPA remain unclear and Pearson evaluators have questionable credentials. New York State should sharply modify the edTPA. It is reasonable to expect student teachers to develop a three-lesson unit and reflect on their practice, but the filming and other parts of the portfolio are burdensome and interfere with learning how to teach. Mastery of the technical competencies included in the package can be demonstrated in the written exams and performance in the classroom should be evaluated by University field supervisors and cooperating teachers based on a full semester of work. And once again, New York State should fire Pearson.

There is no foolproof way to evaluate prospective teachers or anybody else for that matter. People have bad hair days and perform below expectation. Life also interferes with work and sometimes people do not develop as expected. Just look at some of the high draft choices in professional sports. There needs to be support and evaluations along the way and alternative career paths. There is no inoculation or test that can be administered at the start of someone's career that will ensure people will be great teachers down the road.

Note to Judge Wood - If New York State is unable to figure this out, I will be glad to help.