The Illinois state board of education last week held fast to a rigorous cutoff score on its basic-skills test for teacher-candidates, which they are required to pass before enrolling in a teacher-preparation program.
The state set new, tougher cutoff scores on its basic-skills test in 2010, coupling that action with the requirement that candidates perform at a certain level in all four content areas tested, so that they couldn't, for instance, pass the test by acing the literacy section but bombing the mathematics questions. Under the changes, candidates need to get about three-quarters of the questions right in order to pass the test. They also have to pass the test within five tries, down from having an unlimited number.
These changes caused the number of candidates passing the test to decrease dramatically from more than 80 percent down to about a third of candidates. Minority candidates appear to have had a particularly tough time with the newer test; just 12 percent of African-American candidates passed all four sections on the first try, according to state data from 2010-11. This was a concern among teacher colleges, some of which saw dropping enrollments because of the higher requirements, and also of civil rights groups.
Then, earlier this year, the state updated the basic-skills test, making it longer, computer-based, and more in alignment with expectations in the common-core state standards. This meant that the state had to approve cutoff scores again, and there was pressure from deans of education schools in the Chicago area, as well as some civil rights groups, to relax the standards somewhat.
At last week's meeting, though, the state board chose to maintain the higher cutoff scores on the updated exam. It did make a few changes nodding in the direction of the concerns raised by the teacher colleges: Programs can "provisionally" admit students if they passed some (but not all) sections of the exam, provided they pass all the sections before completing the program. And second, they can bypass the basic-skills exam with a score of 22 or higher on the ACT college-entrance exam.
This may all seem like a bit of a sleeper story, but it's one to keep your eyes on, for several reasons. States from Tennessee to Iowa have been re-examining the "entry" point into the teaching profession, of which licensing exams are one important aspect. The idea is to get high-caliber individuals into the profession from the beginning, in the mold of Finland. So expect other states to toy with the idea of harder basic-skills exams or higher cut scores overall (as I reported earlier this year, states almost uniformly set very low cutoff scores on licensing tests); or separately scored math and reading-instruction tests for teachers of those crucial subjects.
The pushback to such efforts, as in Illinois, may well come from concerns that these tests disproportionately affect minority teacher-candidates during a time when the K-12 student population is growing ever more diverse.
Concerns about minority educators and licensing tests go way back to the 1980s, when tests such as these were first introduced to teacher-preparation program. They raise complex questions about how to improve the pipeline of minority candidates into teaching without sacrificing a high bar for entry.
This isn't Illinois' only effort to revamp teacher preparation. It's also beginning an effort to align preparation and certification to the Common Core State Standards, as I reported earlier this month.