As Illinois officials begin to tackle the state’s teacher shortage, lawmakers and policymakers alike are taking a close look at a controversial licensing exam that might be keeping some educators out of the classroom.
Members of the State Board of Education, meeting for the second time Wednesday since being appointed earlier this year by Gov J.B. Pritzker, debated whether teachers in Illinois should have to pass a basic skills test to get a teaching license — even as the exam has proven to be a stumbling block for aspiring teachers of color.
“I don’t want my son to be in an honors Algebra 2 class, and the person in front of the class doesn’t have that knowledge,” said Donna Leak, a board member who is superintendent of a school district south of Chicago. “I don’t know that that the basic skills test is skewed in any way. I passed it fine, and I’m a minority woman.”
Teachers in Illinois currently must pass three exams: one testing their knowledge in the subject they teach, one examining their classroom practices, and a third that assesses their basic skills in math and reading.
The previous state board told licensing programs to stop using the third exam, the Test for Academic Proficiency or TAP, this summer. But it left open the question of whether another basic skills test should take its place.
That question has prompted debate in Illinois and beyond as it has become clear that similar exams, meant to raise the bar for the profession, are failed more often by aspiring teachers of color. In 2017, New York State, for example, did away with its teacher literacy exam for that reason.
On Wednesday, state board members weighed concerns about whether removing the basic skills test would allow unqualified candidates into the classroom against the adverse effects it has had on the state’s efforts to diversify its teaching force.
In the first quarter of 2019, according to data the board reviewed, a quarter of teacher candidates overall passed TAP. The pass rate for black candidates was much lower, just 12 percent.
One board member suggested coming up with a strategy to assess teachers’ basic skills that doesn’t involve a sit-down exam. “Maybe we can define it as a portfolio of skills,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, policy director at an early childhood education think-tank.
Another cautioned against the idea that doing away with a basic skills test would lead to unqualified teachers entering Illinois classrooms. “We are going to want to be looking to avoid this perception that losing the test of basic skills means we are somehow losing the rigor of a basic score,” said Darren Reisberg, chairman of the board and a provost at the University of Chicago. “We have to be focused on rigor, however we define it.”
One complicating issue is that lawmakers are also considering taking action against the assessment that tests classroom teaching skills, EdTPA. They are considering one bill that would require the state board to replace EdTPA, and another that would do away with the requirement, central to the test, that teacher candidates submit videos of themselves teaching.
The exam was considered an important innovation when it launched because it assesses authentic teaching practices rather than teachers’ answers about how they would behave in a classroom in theory.
But over time it has become clear that EdTPA, like basic skills exams, results in lower scores for teachers of color, whom research shows are important to raising the scores of children of color. New York recently decided to keep EdTPA but lower the score required for teachers to gain a license.
Leak said she did not support eliminating EdTPA altogether but was open to replacing it with an alternative that also assessed teaching skills. “I would rather have some sort of replacement with student teaching experience, with clear evidence [of skills] gathered by the university,” she said.
Others argued that while a teaching skills assessment was essential, the EdTPA’s administrator, the global company Pearson, may not be the best judge of which teachers are best suited to work in Illinois. “They are an outside entity not privy to context or conditions,” said Pacione-Zayas.
When the legislature returns to session later this month, they’ll be taking up a slew of legislation related to the teacher shortage crisis — more than 40 bills have been introduced since March.
The board concluded its meeting Wednesday by deciding to ask for additional information to make a decision about the future of the basic skills assessment, and with a promise to remain engaged. “We can’t let the legislature do this work for us,” Reisberg said.