Monday, August 10, 2015
A federal judge has ruled that a new licensing exam for teachers given by New York State did not discriminate against minorities, saying that even though they tended to score poorly, the test evaluated skills necessary to do the job
The ruling is a departure from earlier decisions by the same judge, Kimba M. Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan, in which she threw out past certification exams. It also symbolizes a significant moment in a long-running tug of war between two policy goals in education: making tests for new teachers more rigorous, and increasing the diversity of the nation’s teaching force. The exam, the Academic Literacy Skills Test, often called the ALST, was first given in the 2013-14 school year, and is meant to assess a potential teacher’s reading and evidence-based writing skills, and ability to master the Common Core standards for English. In New York, the exam is one of four tests new teachers must take to become certified. Ken Wagner, a former New York State deputy commissioner of education who is now Rhode Island’s education commissioner, said in a court brief that the new tests were developed “with the need to address the achievement gap in mind and in recognition of the state’s responsibility to ensure that each newly certified teacher entered the classroom with certain minimum knowledge, skills and abilities.” But some schools of education in New York complained that the literacy skills test was not a true measure of what makes a good teacher, and that many of their black and Hispanic students were failing it. An analysis found that 46% of Hispanic candidates and 41% of black candidates passed the test on the first try, while 64% of white candidates did so. Students may retake the exams. More than 80% of the country’s public schoolteachers are white, according to the federal Education Department, and there has been a longstanding push to try to increase diversity among teachers, as minorities now account for more than half of the public school student population. If an employment test has a disparate racial impact, courts have ruled that officials must prove that it measures skills crucial to the job at hand. Judge Wood had ruled that two earlier exams, both called the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, had not met that standard. About 4,000 people who at some point were denied full teaching jobs in New York City because they had not passed those tests have filed claims seeking compensation as a result of those rulings. But this time, Judge Wood ruled that the state and Pearson, the testing company that helped devise the exam, had done a proper job of making sure that the “content of the ALST is representative of the content of a New York State public-school teacher’s job.” In a statement, Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said: “Judge Wood’s decision reflects the efforts made by the department to demonstrate the validity of the ALST. Our students need and deserve the best qualified teachers possible, and the ALST helps make sure they get those teachers.” Even so, following complaints from schools of education, the state granted teacher candidates a reprieve, saying that until June 30, 2016, they could get their licenses without passing the exam if they could demonstrate literacy skills through course work.