Indiana could scrap test seen as a barrier to training more teachers of color

A panel of Indiana House lawmakers took steps to get rid of a teacher preparation test that some educators say keeps teachers of color out of the classroom.

The House Education Committee unanimously voted on Wednesday to remove the state requirement that students pass the basic reading, writing, and math skills test known as “CASA” as freshmen or sophomores before they enter college teacher preparation programs. The provision was added to a bill that would change some rules about alternative teacher licenses, which passed the committee unanimously as well.

Lawmakers and educators have given anecdotes over the past few years about how this test is a barrier for students of color, arguing that standardized exams have a history of bias. Standardized exams are widely criticized for featuring questions that are not culturally or socioeconomically inclusive — or even questions that are clearly racist — potentially putting some students at a disadvantage for answering questions they can’t relate to. For example, students might struggle to answer a word problem about flying if they haven’t traveled on airplanes.

If students haven’t had good experiences with tests previously, they could be stymied before they even begin a teaching program.

“For students of color, they tend to have sometimes increased test anxiety around those tests because they have historically not been served well by those exams in the education system,” Paula Magee, an IUPUI professor, told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

CASA, or the Core Academic Skills Assessment, she said, “is not an indicator of what somebody knows about content. It doesn’t mean you can’t do math, it doesn’t mean that you can’t write, and it doesn’t mean you can’t read.”

Plus, a test like CASA doesn’t necessarily say anything about how good a teacher someone might be, said Constance Lindsay, a researcher with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit public policy research organization.

“Many of those exams are not necessarily related to eventual teacher effectiveness,” Lindsay said, adding that getting rid of tests like CASA can be a good thing if they won’t actually lead to better teachers.

State data shows that last school year, about 80 percent of students overall passed the exam. Officials say the data they receive from universities doesn’t break down pass rates by race, ethnicity, or other demographic factors.

But the inequities can be seen in cases across the country: New York recently approved dropping its basic skills exam for teachers, saying it was redundant and discriminatory. In Michigan, another study found basic skills tests frequently pushed black and Hispanic students out of teacher programs, too.

It’s widely acknowledged in Indiana that there are too few teachers of color. In 2017, the most recent data available, 93 percent of teachers were white. Research has shown that students can benefit from having diverse instructors, and students of color in particular stand to gain from having more teachers from backgrounds similar to theirs.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who chairs the education committee, said his motivation for scrapping the test stemmed more from how it wasn’t useful. Colleges should ensure students have these skills, and they can do that without a test, he said.

“No other field has a test of basic skills,” Behning said, referencing careers such as nursing.

Susan Brock Williams, director of government relations for Purdue University, said Wednesday she supported the move as well.

“It’s sort of an arbitrary requirement,” Brock Williams said. “We can probably do better deciding other methods” to measure how prepared students are, such as GPA, she said.

The bill next heads to the full House.