NEW YORK – New York education officials are poised to scrap a test designed to measure the reading and writing skills of people trying to become teachers, in part because an outsized percentage of black and Hispanic candidates were failing it.
The state Board of Regents on Monday is expected Monday to adopt a task force’s recommendation of eliminating the literacy exam, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test.
Backers of the test say eliminating it could put weak teachers in classrooms. Critics of the examination said it is redundant and a poor predictor of who will succeed as a teacher.
“We want high standards, without a doubt. Not every given test is going to get us there,” said Leslie Soodak, a professor of education at Pace University who served on the task force that examined the state’s teacher certification tests.
The literacy test was among four assessments introduced in the 2013-2014 school year as part of an effort to raise the level of elementary and secondary school teaching in the state.
Leaders of the education reform movement have complained for years about the caliber of students entering education schools and the quality of the instruction they receive there. A December 2016 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 44 percent of the teacher preparation programs it surveyed accepted students from the bottom half of their high school classes.
The reformers believe tests like New York’s Academic Literacy Skills Test can serve to weed out aspiring teachers who aren’t strong students.
But the literacy test raised alarms from the beginning because just 46 percent of Hispanic test takers and 41 percent of black test takers passed it on the first try, compared with 64 percent of white candidates.
A federal judge ruled in 2015 that the test was not discriminatory, but faculty members at education schools say a test that screens out so many minorities is problematic.
“Having a white workforce really doesn’t match our student body anymore,” Soodak said.
Kate Walsh, the president of National Council on Teacher Quality, which pushes for higher standards for teachers, said that blacks and Latinos don’t score as well as whites on the literacy test because of factors like poverty and the legacy of racism.
“There’s not a test in the country that doesn’t have disproportionate performance on the part of blacks and Latinos,” Walsh said.
But she said getting rid of the literacy test would be “a crying shame.”
In implementing the exams, she said, New York had become “light years ahead of other states” in its teacher certification regimen.
“New York put together a suite of testing products that really got at the lack of rigor in teacher prep,” Walsh said.
The Academic Literacy Skills Test consists of multiple-choice questions about a series of reading selections plus a written section.
A practice test available for $20 on the New York State Education Department website features John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address as one of the reading passages and asks questions like this one: “In which excerpt from the passage do Kennedy’s word choices most clearly establish a tone of resolve?”
Ian Rosenblum, the executive director of the New York office of the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for high achievement for all students, called the literacy test “a 12th grade-level assessment” – something a high school senior should be able to pass.
But Pace University student Tabitha Colon took the test last year and failed to get a passing score. She likened it to the English portion of the SAT and said it was “pretty difficult.” Plus, she said, she was thrown off by the fact that the test was given online, rather than on paper.
“The format on the computer was a bit confusing,” she said.
Colon, 21, was still able to pass thanks to a “safety net” provision that lets students demonstrate proficiency by submitting grades from a class. She is now working as a student teacher at a middle school in Ossining.
Several education professors told The Associated Press the test doesn’t measure anything that isn’t covered in other exams students must take, including subject matter certification tests, the SAT, the GRE and tests that are part of their coursework. Also, they said the test’s $131 price tag is too steep.
Michael Middleton, dean of the Hunter College School of Education in Manhattan, said that of the battery of assessments, “It’s the one that looks like it’s the least related to the actual work that teachers do day to day.”
Charles Sahm, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, is a strong supporter of raising the bar for teachers but not a fan of this particular literacy test.
Sahm took the $20 practice exam and thought it was a poorly designed test with multiple-choice questions that seemed to have more than one correct answer.
“I do agree that it’s not a great test,” Sahm said. “I found the reading comprehension section to be kind of infuriating. I only got 21 out of 40 right.”