• New York Times Wonders: Are Competency Tests Always Racist?

    An article published Thursday in The New York Times focuses at length on the tests given to evaluate prospective teachers across the country, and asks the question: Are basic competency tests for teachers too racially biased to be used?

    “Concerned that education schools were turning out too many middling graduates, states have been introducing more difficult teacher licensing exams,” the article says. “Perhaps not surprisingly, passing rates have fallen. But minority candidates have been doing especially poorly, jeopardizing a long-held goal of diversifying the teaching force so it more closely resembles the makeup of the country’s student body.”

    New York itself has been at the center of this controversy. Earlier this month, a federal judge threw out New York’s prior teacher competency test, used through 2012. The test simply determined whether teachers had high school-level understandings of science, writing, and the liberal arts, but because whites performed better it was held to be racially discriminatory. The decision means New York will likely have to promote those who failed the test into full-time classroom positions. (RELATED: NY Teacher Exam Thrown Out For Being Discriminatory)

    The Times piece warns that racial differences can be seen nationwide as well. The Praxis test administered by Educational Testing Service, which is used in over thirty states to test teacher competency, shows its own racial inequalities. On the Praxis Core math test, for instance, 55 percent of white test-takers in the past two years passed on their first attempt, compared to just 35 percent of Hispanics and 21.5 percent of blacks. On another test, the hardest of four New York teachers must pass to enter the classroom, 41 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Hispanics pass on the first go-round, while 64 percent of whites do the same.

    And that, some people say, is a problem, because it’s perpetuating a situation where over 80 percent of public school teachers are white, even as a majority of their students aren’t.

    “This is very serious,” former New York education commissioner David Steiner told the Times. “It reflects, of course, the tragic performance gap we see in just about every academic or aptitude test.”

    Others see not just a performance gap, but possibly subtle racism that keeps minorities from achieving their dreams.

    “We need to be clear about what skills are necessary, rather than just trying to eliminate people from the pool,” warns Linda Hammond-Darling of Stanford University.

    These concerns aren’t idle musings. Even though New York State has argued in court that its tests are essential for “protect[ing] the public from incompetent teachers,” the Times notes that complaints from minority representatives are leading it to loosen its standards; Illinois has done the same.

    According to Harriet Fayne, dean of Lehman’s School of Education, which the Times notes has “not fared well” with tougher competency tests, the biggest danger isn’t exposing students to less-capable teachers, but rather discouraging minorities who feel called to teaching.

    “[Teaching] students are still asking themselves the question — and I think particularly students from underrepresented groups in the teaching profession — is this a path that I can take that’s likely to lead to success?” Fayne tells the Times. “My worst fear is that these people will just disappear on us.”

    Lowering barriers to entry could allow more minorities to be teachers, but it could hinder the improvement of schools. Research has shown that low-quality teachers tend to concentrate at poorer schools. For example, in Brooklyn, 14 schools have 20 percent or more of their teachers rated as “bad,” and all of them have heavy low-income populations. Slashing the number of “bad” teachers who exist in the first place could be one way to improve.

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