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Cultural Biases Persist in National Licensure Exam for Teachers

Weighing a pig won’t make it fatter, and racist exams will not increase the number of teachers of color and American Indian teachers in the nation’s classrooms.

The Urban Teacher Program (UTP), housed in the School of Urban Education (UED) at Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minn., is completing its 17th year of preparing diverse teacher candidates to meet the needs of the Twin Cities metro area since its founding was mandated by the Legislature in 2000 with a one-time funding appropriation.

Dr. Nicholas D. HartlepDr. Nicholas D. Hartlep

MSU is a Minority Serving Institution (MSI), specifically an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI), which means the majority of its students are students of color (Asian/American) and/or American Indian. The average age of an MSU student is 33, and many students are Muslim and multilingual.

UED is the most ethnically diverse school of education in Minnesota in terms of its faculty and staff, with more candidates and completers who are of color or American Indian than any other teacher preparation program in the state. UED offers several majors that qualify program completers to become licensed educators in the state of Minnesota. And, like other teacher preparation programs across the nation, UED is not immune from having to have its students take and pass high-stakes licensure exams if they wish to become fully licensed teachers.

Teachers in Minnesota are required to demonstrate competency on a series of tests in reading, writing, math, pedagogy and licensure field-specific content knowledge. The Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board of Minnesota (PELSB) is responsible for overseeing the teacher testing requirements set forth in Minnesota statute and is continually monitoring and analyzing its testing requirements.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, passing scores on the ACT Plus Writing or SAT exams have been permitted to be submitted as an alternative to the NES Basic Skills tests in math, reading and writing in order to meet the requirements for “basic skills” in reading, writing, and math.

NES stands for National Evaluation Series. We believe that the NES basic skills exams reinforce manmade structures of social stratification that consist of exalting the worldviews of Whites, English-dominant speakers and economically privileged Christians at the top of the social order. On the bottom of this social order are test-takers who are the first in their families to attend college and test-takers for whom English is their second language.

Ninety-seven percent of Metropolitan State students are community and technical college transfer students. Some have completed an associate’s degree before they matriculate at Metropolitan. Consequently, very few students have taken the ACT or SAT exams.

In spite of completing an average of 40 credits at two-year institutions before beginning an undergraduate course of study, these students’ successful completion of college-level courses does not exempt them from having to take the NES Basic Skills exams for entry or teacher licensure. Hence, although the ACT and SAT are permitted to take the place of these “basic skills” exams, very few of our students have taken them as opposed to their more privileged peers, who take these exams prior to high school completion.

The norms upon which the NES basic skills tests were created do not reflect the lived experiences of the bulk of Metropolitan State pre-service teachers who are aspiring to become licensed teachers. Moreover, these tests do not measure what students know – they measure what students have. Test-takers who are advantaged materially, linguistically and culturally will pass the tests at disproportionate rates compared to diverse and poorer students.

Although, nationally, the racial diversity of teachers has become slightly more diverse over time, the rate of this change has not been as fast as K–12 students in Minnesota deserve. For instance, about 80% of the nation’s teachers are white, 7% are Black and 2% are Asian. In Minnesota, there are reasons to believe that the NES is an obstacle that further reinforces the slow change in racial diversity of the state’s teaching force.

For instance, according to the latest report in the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, there are noticeable testing gaps in these Minnesota-based teacher licensure tests. For instance, Whites disproportionately take the NES reading, writing and mathematics subtests. This pattern persists when you examine the test-taking patterns for the content area tests for elementary education, grades K–6.

Curiously, the latest report does not include gender or racial data. How can teacher preparation programs in Minnesota remain accountable to citizens if we do not reflect on our progress?

Licensure tests disproportionately impact candidates of color and multilingual students, and we argue that measuring teacher readiness to teach through standardized test scores inaccurately conceptualizes teacher quality as detached from larger systems of oppression. This purposeful and problematic detachment works to ignore and dismiss larger societal issues that affect scores, such as English language supremacy and cultural biases based on notions of ethnocentric superiority.

For instance, extended time is covered by the ADA for licensure exams. However,  being a non-native English speaker is not a disability. NES allows test takers for whom English is their second, third or fourth languages to apply for extended time. However, applying for such an accommodation is arduous in that a letter must be provided on institution letterhead ,and various confusing online forms also must be filled out and submitted for approval.

This process ends up being nothing more than a modern day “poll tax” comprised of having to navigate hurdles that pre-service teachers from privileged identities are not asked and expected to jump over. In the assessment world, it is often noted that “weighing a pig won’t make it fatter.” This dictum refers to the notion that assessing learning does not necessarily require that valuable learning take place. By the same measure, requiring teachers to pass licensure exams will not increase the number of teachers of color and American Indian teachers in the state of Minnesota or the rest of the nation. It actually does the opposite.

In Testing Teaching Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teacher Quality, a report put out by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors noted how NES failed to provide technical information so that the tests could be reviewed by the NRC panel. NES seems to be violating the measurement profession’s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing.

Dr. Nicholas D. Hartlep is an assistant professor and coordinator of the Early Childhood and Elementary School Programs in the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University. Dr. René Antrop-González is the school’s dean.

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