I remember being a junior in high school and, having just taken the PSAE — Illinois’ two-day standardized test used to assess whether or not students are meeting state standards. I flopped on the ground just inside the door at my house. My mom laughed at me as I whined, “Will I have to take standardized tests in college?”
“Probably,” she said, honestly. She was right. As a candidate for teacher certification, I had to pass three long, standardized tests in addition to my grueling college coursework in order to receive my certification. The first was a basic skills test, which I needed to pass in order to be admitted to the teacher education program. That test assessed my basic knowledge of math, reading and language arts. The second test assessed my content area knowledge, checking to be sure I learned enough about English language and literature in college to teach it effectively. The third was a multiple choice and writing test combined, and asked questions about ethics in situations with students. Each question had multiple correct answers, and the challenge was to select the best one with little to no background information about the student or the situation.
Fortunately, I passed all three tests and am now happily teaching English in a Chicago-area high school. Not all teacher candidates are so fortunate, though. When these higher teacher standards were implemented, pass rates plummeted. While, on the surface, this might seem like a good thing — like we are weeding out people who shouldn’t be teaching in the first place — if you look a little deeper, it is clear that the tests are disproportionately affecting people of color. A group of Chicago-area college deans are concerned about this and are trying to reexamine the standards in order to address the concern that an inordinate amount of people of color are being held back from being teachers. A recent opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune tried to persuade readers that we should not lower standards for teacher candidates, regardless of this information:
High standards are important not just for those who aspire to be teachers, but for the thousands of Illinois schoolchildren who will sit in the classrooms of those teachers. Will students have the life-changing opportunity to learn from an excellent teacher? Or will they lose precious months because the person leading the class is in the wrong profession?
Setting higher cut scores — weeding out applicants who shouldn’t be teachers before they graduate with teaching degrees — is a smart way to ensure that Illinois classrooms have only the best teachers.
While I do agree that having high standards for teachers is important both to students and to the profession itself, I disagree that the standards should not be reexamined. There are a multitude of issues with standardized tests, and those issues don’t just disappear once a student has graduated from high school. According to this piece from the New York Times, studies show that standardized tests are not, in fact, knowledge-neutral as they claim to be. This puts people who were raised with a different cultural knowledge than is assumed in the tests at a serious disadvantage.
Furthermore, people who were brought up speaking Standard English — the language we encounter in formal education — have an advantage in taking standardized tests over people brought up speaking a culturally specific version of the language, or hybrid of English and another language, or another language all together. This all adds up to put people of color at a significant disadvantage when taking standardized tests.
It’s no secret, either, that having diverse teachers helps students immensely. According to the Center for Exceptional Children:
Diverse students tend to have higher academic, personal, and social performance when taught by teachers from their own ethnic group.
Diverse teachers have demonstrated that when diverse students are taught with culturally responsive techniques and with content-specific approaches usually reserved for students with gifts and talents, their academic performance improves significantly.
Diverse teachers have higher performance expectations for students from their own ethnic group.
These are just a few of the reasons why diversity in education is so important. The bottom line is that teacher standards are keeping people of color out of the profession, and they need to be reexamined. While standards should not be lowered, we should be using other methods besides standardized tests to assess the ability of teacher candidates.
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