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New York State Kills Literacy Test for Teachers: Minority Kids Hardest Hit

Teachers’ unions are cheering the news that New York state education officials have killed off a literacy test which successfully revealed that almost a third of candidate teachers cannot meet eight-grade standards. 

Members of the New York state Board of Regents voted on Monday to eliminate the literacy exam which revealed the prospective teachers’ poor reading and writing skills, saying the controversial test is “flawed” and that it puts Latino and African-American teacher applicants at an unfair disadvantage.

Advocates of testing said the decision to kill the literacy test will lower teaching standards, especially for minority students in the city. 

“Eliminating the [test just] to increase the number of unqualified, unprepared Black and Latino prospective teachers is the most racist and destructive action taken under the guise of diversifying NY’s teachers,” said Mona Davids, President of the New York City Parents Union, adding: 

We, Black and Latino parents, do not want teachers who cannot pass a basic literacy test. We don’t care about the color or race of the teacher, we want highly effective teachers teaching our children.

“It’s alarming because we’ve now abandoned or watered down the teacher evaluation process, and now we’re lowering the bar for entry certification as well,” said Charles Sahm, Director of Education policy at the Conservative think tank Manhattan Institute.

“It is deeply disappointing that the Regents and State Education Department are lowering the bar for teacher literacy skills and astonishing that there has been virtually no public discussion of the potential impact on student learning,” said Ian Rosenblum, the Executive Director of Education Trust-New York, a non-profit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for students of color and low-income students.

“We should be focusing on ensuring that prospective teachers receive the support they need in teacher preparation programs rather than weakening the teacher certification standards that can help ensure students have equitable access to strong educators,” he said. 

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, one of the four exams aspiring teachers in New York must take to become certified, was introduced in 2013 to ensure teachers had strong language skills and to assess the ability to master the Common Core standards for English. Considered the hardest exam out of the four, it found that 32 percent of aspiring teachers statewide failed the test — even though it was passed by teachers who just met eighth-grade English standards. 

The exam began to draw controversy when data from the State Education Department showed that only 41 percent of black test-takers and 46 percent of Hispanic test-takers passed on the first try, compared to 64 percent of white test takers. This disparate result also cut the pool of eligible teaching candidates by 20 percent in just one year.

A Manhattan Federal District Court judge in 2015 ruled that the ALST exam didn’t discriminate against minorities.

According to a report in the New York Times, Judge Kimba M. Wood ruled that just because racial minorities scored lower on the exam didn’t mean it was discriminatory. Wood determined that the state and Pearson, the company that creates the ALST exam, are doing a “proper job in making sure the content of the ALST is representative of the content of a New York State public school teacher’s job.”

State officials defended their vote to let the least literate teachers into classrooms.

 “We’re not getting rid of literacy, so let’s dispel that right now,” said Kathleen Cashin, who chairs the board committee. “Just because the word ‘literacy’ is on the test doesn’t mean it’s a good test, does it? And if it’s not a good test, our students [teachers] shouldn’t be subjected to it.”

Cashin added, “It’s just that if you have a flawed test, does that raise standards or does that lower standards?”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia also supported the Board of Regents’s removal of the test. “The Regents and I continue to seek out expert advice from educators, parents and the public as we make important policy decisions,” Elia said, adding:

In this case, the experts and practitioners have suggested changes to our certification requirements that will help support teacher candidates and ensure students are taught by high-quality teachers while helping to address the national teacher shortage at the same time. New York’s teaching certification requirements remain some of the most rigorous in the country, requiring the vast majority of teaching candidates to pass three assessments before earning certification.

To replace the ALST, the New York State Education Department recommending on modifying one of the three remaining exams, the Educating All Students (EAS) test to “assesses both students’ ability to teach a diverse population and also their literacy skills.”

Since the federal ruling which supported the test, the Board of Regents, a powerful 17-member panel that sets education policy for New York, established an edTPA Task Force in 2016 to review issues with the teacher certification exams. According to

The Task Force subsequently complained about “the cost of the exam, the ongoing need for the exam in light of the other required exams and the total number of exams required for certification.”

Despite the 2015 ruling and findings from the Task Force that found no racial bias, members of the Task Force still claim the ALST exam has caused a shortage of minority teachers. 

“Having a white workforce really doesn’t match our student body anymore,” Leslie Soodak, a professor at Pace University, who also serves as a member of the Task Force. “We want high standards, without a doubt. Not every given test is going to get us there.”

New York education leaders defended killing the test. 

“The changes we advanced today strike the right balance for both teachers and students,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa said in a statement. “Candidates for certification will still be required to demonstrate their teaching skills and knowledge before entering the classroom. At the same time, we are eliminating costly and unnecessary testing requirements that create unfair obstacles to certification for many applicants.”

According to the Albany Times-Union, Rosa slammed the critics who are critical of the changes, calling it “insulting.”

“We’ve got individuals out there who don’t even know what this [literacy] test looks like,” Rosa said. “The only thing they know is they hear the word ‘literacy’ and they don’t realize these people are going through a bachelor’s degree, English classes, writing classes. Getting a degree and all of that stuff becomes negated, and it’s so insulting that people make this an issue without having the complete story.”

The New York State United Teachers Union praised the removal of the test.

The changes adopted by the Regents will, when fixed, fix some of the worst problems associated with the botched roll-out of edTPA and high-stakes testing for aspiring teachers while maintaining high standards for those students who wish to enter the profession,” the teacher union said in a statement. “Eliminating the duplicative Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) — are pluses for students, and we support these changes.”

Advocates for better education were not mollified by the promise of from the anti-test advocates. 

“The Regents eliminating the ALST is again putting the interests of adults before our children,” Davids said. “By lowering the bar for prospective teachers to please the teachers union and sub-par, diploma mills, Schools of Education, the Regents is completely destroying the futures of Black and Latino students. The majority of students do not read, write or do math at grade level and we need teachers who are literate and effective.”

“It is important that we increase the share of black and Hispanic teachers, and we certainly don’t have enough here or anywhere, Sahm said. “I don’t think this is the way to go. This is a literacy exam. If you’re going to be a teacher in New York state, this is a criterion you should be able to meet.”

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