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

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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.