Teaching teachers

It’s official: New York’s prospective teachers will no longer have to pass controversial literacy exam

PHOTO: Creative Commons / timlewisnm

State officials voted to make it easier to become a New York state teacher on Monday by knocking off one of the state’s main teacher certification requirements.

Prospective teachers will no longer have to take the Academic Literacy Skills Test, an exam designed to measure reading and writing ability. The decision marks a significant rollback of the state’s certification requirements, but officials said the literacy test had become an unnecessary hurdle for prospective teachers.

“The issue is not that literacy is not important, literacy is everything,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, who chairs the board’s committee on higher education. “It’s just that if you have a flawed test, does that raise standards or does that lower standards?”

The literacy test, which became mandatory in 2014, was one of several requirements the state added to overhaul teacher preparation in 2009. Regents hoped that a slate of more rigorous exams would help better prepare teachers for the real-life demands of the job and make for a more qualified teaching force.

In total, teachers have had to clear four certification hurdles, including the literacy exam. The other exams ask teachers to demonstrate their teaching skills, content knowledge, and understanding of students with particular needs.

Though the intent was to create a more qualified teaching workforce, officials argued Monday the overhaul did not work out as planned — providing an unnecessary roadblock for prospective teachers. The exam faced legal challenges after a low percentage of black and Hispanic students passed the test. Only 38 percent of aspiring black teachers and 46 percent of aspiring Hispanic teachers passed the test between September 2013 and June 2016, compared to 69 percent of their white peers, according to the state education department officials.

State officials, and the state teachers union, also argued that the test was unnecessary since teachers already need to pass several other certification exams. In lieu of the using the ALST, the new measure approved by the Regents would modify a different certification exam to include additional assessment of reading and writing skills.

Chancellor Betty Rosa gave a particularly strong defense of the changes, arguing that some of those who have been critical of this move have “no clue” and that dropping the test does not represent a lowering of standards.

“The theme song … has been ‘Oh you’re lowering the standards,” Rosa said. “No, ladies and gentlemen.”

But critics disagree. They worry it will help less qualified teachers enter the classroom.

“While New York’s teacher shortage and the need to recruit and retain quality teaching candidates must be a priority, watering down literacy standards is the wrong way to solve the problem,” said a statement issued by High Achievement New York, a group that supports rigorous standards. “If the Academic Literacy Skills test is flawed, work to improve it – and ensure it is fair to every prospective teacher who takes it – but don’t end it.”

Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown expressed concern that the change may not be in the best interest of students, particularly those who are already at a disadvantage.

“I’m concerned that if some teachers are more literate than others, where are they going?” Brown said. “If we drill down, what does this mean for kids?”

The Regents passed the measure as an emergency regulation Monday evening. It will go into effect immediately and the board expects it will likely be adopted as a permanent rule in July.

As part of the regulation, state officials would also extend a safety net provision for the edTPA exam, a test that requires teachers to submit a videotape of them teaching a lesson. The safety net, which allows students to take an easier, paper-based exam, was put in place after only 77 percent of prospective teachers passed the exam after it rolled out in New York. Prior exams yielded much higher pass rates. It will continue until the state creates a new passing score for the exam, according to the Regents material.

The Regents also discussed whether to allow students who barely failed the edTPA exam a chance to earn their teaching certification through a review of other measures, such as grades and teacher recommendations. State officials anticipate the Regents will formally consider this measure in July.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the percentage of black, Hispanic and white aspiring teachers who passed the literacy test between 2013 and 2016. 

the write way

What’s missing from the conversation about the state’s ditched literacy test for teachers?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The Board of Regents applauds James Tallon at his last meeting, moments after officially voting to eliminate a literacy test for prospective teachers.

In a major change to teacher certification, New York officials decided prospective teachers will no longer have to pass an “academic literacy” test in order to enter classrooms.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to jump on the news, raising concerns that teachers who struggle to read and write could now be able to enter New York’s classrooms.

State officials say that argument is misguided. Since aspiring teachers must earn a college degree, and pass three other certification exams, they argue, illiterate applicants will not make the cut in the first place. The exam also is inherently flawed, they say, and kept a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers out of schools.

But experts say that narrow debate about literacy misses a broader conversation. They argue that the test was never meant to protect against a flood of teachers unable to read and write. It was, however, intended to help ensure high teacher quality, they say, and the question is whether the current certification process furthers that goal.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the state implemented a few years ago, was part of a larger movement to elevate the quality of the teaching profession. Officials thought at the time that a more rigorous test of reading and writing should be part of that mix.

But literacy tests for teachers got their start in a different era, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national education researcher who now runs an education policy think tank. They were originally implemented in the 1980s when there were fewer hurdles to entering the teaching profession, she said.

“That might have made sense at that time in those places,” Darling-Hammond said, but added there is little evidence today that literacy tests are a good way to screen for effective teachers. There’s also no widespread concern, she said, that illiterate teachers are entering the profession.

“I think at this point, there is not strong evidence about that,” she said.

Ken Lindblom, dean of the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University, who has taught prospective teachers, agreed that the focus on literacy is misplaced.

“It’s simply not the case that we have all these teachers … and they’re illiterate and we need to stop,” Lindblom said. “This is a false conundrum that we have invented.”

Dylan Roth, who is studying to become a teacher in a graduate program at Queens College, said he felt “insulted” by news coverage suggesting an epidemic of teacher illiteracy. “They speak of the ALST as if it were the line in the sand keeping horridly illiterate and unqualified teachers out of the classroom,” he said. “Yet besides brief mentions of teachers unions [in the articles], there is no virtually no input from teachers themselves who have gone through the process of certification,” he said.

Roth pointed out that the test’s fee (more than $100) poses a burden for aspiring teachers already paying for seminars, textbooks, tuition and more. Meanwhile, he said, the test is unnecessary when similar questions could simply be added to one of the three other certification tests, a proposal the state has offered.

Still, some say this conversation is about more than just a test — it’s about how the state can build a superior teacher workforce. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-NY pointed to a 2007 study that found recruiting teachers with stronger certification status or SAT scores could improve student achievement.

“Research shows that having teachers with stronger academic skills makes a meaningful difference in student outcomes, and that is why we believed that maintaining the ALST … is important for equity,” Rosenblum said.

Daniel Weisberg, CEO at TNTP, an organization focused on creating more effective teachers, says the best way to attract high-quality teachers isn’t a tough literacy test. He thinks the emphasis should be on more teacher observation instead.

But he said, over the years, he has seen some prospective educators who want to become teachers even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. In order to avoid certifying those teachers, state officials could create a more narrow test of basic skills, he said.

“What you need is a surgical tool, not a chainsaw,” Weisberg said. “With a lot of these certification exams right now … they end up being a chainsaw, not a surgical tool.”

State Education Department officials plan to add a long reading and writing requirement to the Educating All Students Test, a change that is still being reviewed. They could not yet say whether a student who failed a new literacy portion of another exam could still become a teacher. According to a state education official, the test is expected to include the new literacy portions by January 2018.

The other certification tests already involve reading and writing. The edTPA, a performance-based assessment that asks students to videotape a lesson, requires them to write about their teaching practice. The exams require writing, but the edTPA handbook says the rubrics “do not address the quality of your writing,” and does not penalize test-takers for grammar and spelling errors, though it suggests the ability to effectively communicate is critical.

The other exams include content questions and some questions that require written responses. Supporters of eliminating the literacy test argue that even though prospective teachers are not given a writing score, literacy is embedded in the exams.

The edTPA “requires teacher candidates to organize their arguments, to logically sequence claims,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force. “That’s how you assess literacy. It’s the ability to write, but it’s more then that.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote rigorous standards, isn’t convinced. Literacy is crucial to teaching and should be assessed separately, he said. And while the state may include more literacy questions in a different exam, it’s a mistake to eliminate the test without having a fully developed alternative, he said.

“I don’t know enough about the specifics of the test but I take the [State Education] Department and the Regents’ word for it that they think there was a flawed test,” Sigmund said. “So fine, if there are problems with the test, fix the test.”

Compromise

Teacher pay overhaul would establish merit pay, tackle salary inequities

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small, chief of human resources for Shelby County Schools, explains the district's proposal for a new teacher pay structure.

Since 2014, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has tried to establish a merit pay plan for teachers in Shelby County Schools but, for one reason or another, it’s eluded the district.

Now, his team is trying again — and they’ve come up with a proposal that they hope will help Tennessee’s largest district retain its most talented teachers, while also appealing to teachers that previously have balked at shifting to performance-based pay.

The proposal unveiled Tuesday would address inequities in the pay structure that have given higher salaries to newly hired teachers than to existing teachers with the same experience for up to 10 years.

Any subsequent raises would be based on teacher evaluation scores of 3 to 5 on the state’s 1-to-5 model, which is based on classroom observations and student test scores.

The plan also would resurrect additional compensation for job-related advanced degrees — but only in the form of bonuses if the teachers rate 4 or 5. The same goes for hard-to-staff teaching positions such as in special education, math and science, as well as veteran teachers who have reached the district’s maximum salary, which would go from $72,000 to $73,000.

The overhaul would take effect next school year using $10.7 million earmarked in Hopson’s proposed $945 million spending plan for 2017-18. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget in April.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a high priority as Shelby County Schools seeks to boost test scores in low-performing schools with many poor students. And research shows teachers have the most influence on student achievement.

Trinette Small, chief of human resources, said the district has to keep its pay structure competitive to retain its most effective teachers, especially with six municipal school systems nearby.

“This is trying to get base pay stabilized,” Small told school board members during a budget review session. “This is an investment in teachers but this is something we can afford.”

In exit surveys, a fourth of high-performing teachers cited noncompetitive pay as their reason for leaving the district, she said. And most who left had the second-highest evaluation score.

The plan pleased school board members, and parts of it appeared to appeal to teachers unions, although its leaders still had some concerns.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said the new structure positions the district for a more stable learning environment.

“The big point about the change was to have (pay) merit-based and not just longevity-based because at a certain point, they plateau,” Caldwell said. “The main thing we got to worry about is student draining and teacher draining.”

School board member Mike Kernell said the plan should boost teacher morale by addressing inequities in the system. “I think by resetting this, we’re going to start seeing more experienced teachers at the right level starting to help the younger teachers without the resentment that you’re making $2,000 less,” he said

Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, was mostly pleased with the proposal but took issue with tying pay for advanced degrees with evaluation scores. Teachers should be rewarded in their base pay for advanced degrees, not through bonuses, she said.

Rucker and Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, both said the initial leveling up should apply to all teachers on the former step schedule up to 17 years, instead of stopping at 10.

“If you’re going to abandon the schedule system, at least level everyone up,” Williams told Chalkbeat. “If it’s not going to benefit everybody, you might as well throw it in the trash.”

Small said the leveling up is meant to make teacher pay competitive with new hires. Since the district only incorporates up to 10 years of experience in pay for new teachers, the leveling up was limited to the same.

The New Teacher Project provided consultation on the district’s pay plan by gathering data, conducting focus groups and crafting the compensation model.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the district proposes to level up pay up to 10 years of experience.