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Tom Weber, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published February 24 2013

Teacher test law criticized in Minnesota

ST. PAUL – Teachers and school administrators across Minnesota are asking lawmakers to rethink a law they passed last year that was aimed at producing higher-quality teachers.

The law requires teacher candidates to pass the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Exam before they can get a teacher’s license. The test includes reading, math and writing sections.

Now schools are worried they might lose recruits, current teachers and particularly teachers of color because they haven’t passed the exam. There’s currently a proposal at the state Capitol to scrap the test altogether.

“The smartest people in the world can take a test, but not everyone can teach,” said Chris Pierce, a teacher at Obama Service Learning Elementary School in St. Paul.

Pierce, 33, is a St. Paul native who grew up a few blocks from where he now teaches. It’s his fourth year at Obama and his third teaching second grade.

“I know I’m qualified,” he said. “I know it every day when my kids come in and they’re smiling and they want to be here. I have perfect attendance. They don’t want to leave the classroom; they ask me to go to enrichment classes with them. They learn. Learning is taking place, and for a test to tell me I’m not qualified to make that happen, it’s not right.”

Pierce repeatedly failed the writing exam and spent more than $2,000 of his own money to pay for classes and re-takes. He was close to being told he couldn’t teach before he finally passed. But Pierce said he didn’t suddenly learn something new. He passed because the same questions started showing up on those retakes, so he knew what to write.

“It’s been extremely frustrating,” he said. “It’s been expensive; it’s been frustrating; it’s been tedious work ... and I honestly don’t think I’ve become a better writer because of it.”

Like Pierce, hundreds of budding teachers have failed the basic skills exam and are in danger of not being able to teach in Minnesota. The law previously gave people three years to pass, meaning they could still be in a classroom. But that window closed last year, and passage is required before teaching.

Critics understand they’re arguing against what seems like a no-brainer – why would I put my kid in a classroom where the teacher can’t pass something called a basic skills test? Won’t this keep out bad teachers? No, say the critics, it will just keep out people who struggle with taking tests.

Sharon Freeman, an assistant superintendent in St. Paul, said teaching skills don’t shine in a test. She favors scrapping the test.

“It’s about classroom management and relationships,” she said. “Once you get those, the rest of it we can teach. But a test doesn’t show if a teacher can form relationships and manage a classroom.”

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, lobbies for metro-area school districts, including St. Paul. He favors the idea of dropping the test, but he doesn’t think it’s politically viable, so he favors changing some of the requirements.

“I think the political leaders are going to be more inclined to keep some standard in place to make sure our teachers are proficient, and we’re fine with that - as long as the law provides some flexibility and gives teachers some time to reach that standard,” he said.

Proposed changes at the state Legislature include carving out exceptions to the test requirement for non-native English speakers who teach in language immersion programs. They would have three years to pass the test, the way the old law allowed. An administrator from Minnetonka, Minn., told lawmakers Tuesday that his district could lose 12 immersion teachers next year because they haven’t passed the test.

There are critics who want to dump the test because of another issue at the core of the debate: Large disparities by race. According to state data, 76 percent of all teacher candidates have passed the basic skills math test since 2010. But only 26 percent of African American and 45 percent of Hispanic teachers passed.

On the reading test, 77 percent of all test-takers have passed; only 37-percent of blacks have and 49 percent of Hispanics have, while 79 percent of whites passed. On the writing test, 77 percent of all candidates have passed, including 79 percent of whites, but only 35 percent of blacks passed.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, the head of the St. Paul teachers’ union, doesn’t understand why there would be any gap. These are, after all, people who got strong enough scores in high school to go to college, strong enough college scores to get into a College of Education and then strong enough College of Education scores to keep pursuing a teaching license.

“They have already proved themselves in so many venues that it really makes me suspect the test in this case because the individuals have already performed very successfully on a lot of other measurements that we value, as well,” she said.

In other words, Ricker believes the test is racially or ethnically biased.

“Isn’t it time for that bigger conversation and deeper analysis to see what it is we reasonably need, and want to expect, and should continue to expect - and what might not be necessary anymore?” she said.

Another member of the Board of Teaching is Karen Palmen, an English teacher at St. Paul Central High School. She said she’s frustrated that today’s students in St. Paul don’t have more teachers who look like them.

“And there is a positive African-American figure standing in front of them,” she said. “He’s not a basketball star; he’s not a drug dealer; he’s not everything the media displays about black men. He’s a teacher, and he’s my teacher. Their eyes beam.”