See more of the story

Legislative efforts to repeal a controversial test for Minnesota’s aspiring teachers have all but sputtered out this year, but questions linger about whether the exam presents unfair challenges to teachers of color and those whose native language is not English.

Legislators who support the test, most of them Republicans, have successfully blocked efforts to scrap what is most commonly known as the basic-skills exam for teachers, which measures proficiency in reading, writing and math. Doing away with it, they say, would lower the bar for Minnesota’s teachers.

But leaders of the state’s teaching colleges, school administrators and some DFL legislators have argued that the test does little to gauge the merit of teaching candidates and may contain a cultural bias that creates unfair roadblocks for minority students who want to enter teaching.

Since the test’s inception in 2010, about 78 to 79 percent of those who have taken it have passed, according to documents submitted last year by a statewide task force appointed to study the issue. But only 32 percent of black candidates and 48 percent of Hispanic candidates passed the math portion. Forty percent of black candidates and 55 percent of Hispanics passed the reading portion, while 41 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Hispanics passed the writing portion.

“If every group was to pass it at a rate of 72 to 73 percent or more, I think we’d all be pretty happy about it,” said Christopher Smith, an assistant professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis who co-chaired the task force. “That is not what’s happening.”

Last week, a Senate plan to repeal the test and replace it with an exam that measures college readiness was tabled. Still in place is a House proposal that would keep the test in place but give candidates the option of proving their proficiency on either the SAT or ACT.

Without a legislative fix, some school administrators say they worry that schools won’t have the latitude to hire the teachers they need, particularly those who aren’t native English speakers.

“If this issue is not resolved this session, a situation will be created where you have schools going after a very small, very finite number of teachers to work in immersion schools,” said Minnetonka Assistant Superintendent Tim Alexander. “The strong immersion programs like ours will survive, but those that are new or perhaps facing some economic challenges might not.”

A flawed test of worth?

Before a teacher can ever lead a classroom, there are a number of steps. First up: Graduate from an accredited teaching college.

Then, pass a suite of tests known as the Minnesota Teaching Licensure Exams, which measure content mastery and pedagogy (teaching skills).

The third prong of those exams is the controversial portion, which assesses a teaching candidate’s proficiency in college-level reading, writing and math. Pearson, the tests’ vendor, refers to this portion as the basic-skills exam — much to the consternation of teaching colleges and their students.

Since its inception, many have questioned whether this basic-skills portion is warranted: Do kindergarten teachers really need to know calculus?

Kitty Foord, president of the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, points out that most teaching colleges already require students to take courses that can prove whether they read or write.

“I can assure you these are courses that are quite intensive,” she said.

Perhaps the strongest objection to the test comes from those who say it contains a cultural bias that influences the scores of the small number of minority candidates that take it — a claim that Pearson denies.

Earlier this year, a 20-member task force made up of principals, school board members and legislators agreed that the test should be scrapped and that the state board of teaching should develop requirements that include assurances that teacher candidates are proficient in reading, writing and math.

Task force members heard from dozens of teachers who failed the basic-skills exam and found themselves in teaching limbo. They included teachers who were not native English speakers, candidates trying to get jobs in rural schools and college graduates who had changed careers and were trying to enter the teaching profession.

Four members of the task force disagreed with their colleagues, issuing a separate report that stated that repealing the test would be lowering expectations for Minnesota teachers.

“Nobody else, no other profession I can think of, would you get a license without having to demonstrate and verify they know what they’re doing,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, one of those dissenters.

A step backward?

The debate over the basic-skills exam for teachers comes at a time when both the states and the U.S. Department of Education have raised questions about the adequacy of teacher preparation colleges.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told the Star Tribune last year that most states are increasing requirements for teacher candidates, not relaxing them. She called efforts to do away with Minnesota’s basic-skills exam “a step backward.”

It seems likely that the teacher exam will survive this legislative session, because most legislators don’t like the idea of scrapping it without more debate on a replacement measure. Efforts to dump the test last year failed, too.

Rep. Barb Yarusso, DFL-Shoreview, is the sponsor of a proposal that calls for keeping the test but allowing test-takers to also use the ACT or SAT to demonstrate proficiency.

Yarusso, who tutors college students, said she often struggles to find study materials for the licensure exam. The college readiness exams, however, “translate well and are workable because they’re so widely used,” she said.

There also appears to be some support among legislators to throw a lifeline to teachers whose first language isn’t English and can’t pass the test.

“Really, this has to do with future hiring,” Alexander said. “When we bring a person in, we can’t guarantee them a job past next year even if they meet all of our standards and do a good job in the classroom.”

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469