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Minnesota considers scrapping basic skills test for teachers

By CHRISTOPHER MAGAN, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Minnesota is considering making it easier to become a teacher by eliminating what educators say is an overly demanding test of their academic skills.

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A committee created during the 2013 legislative session is recommending that lawmakers scrap a “basic skills test” of math, reading and writing skills that teachers must now pass before they can command a classroom. The proposal will be presented to lawmakers next month.

Advocates for eliminating the tests say it is not an accurate measure of competency, has cultural bias and accommodations have not been made for test-takers with disabilities. They say it also serves as an unnecessary hurdle for out-of-state teachers or non-native English speakers who come to Minnesota to work in language immersion programs.

John Bellingham, a Faribault Middle School teacher and chair of the state board of teaching, said testimony from license candidates who were unable to pass the test convinced him the exam was too difficult a requirement. Minnesota already has a variety of other requirements — including measures of classroom performance and content knowledge — that ensure teachers are prepared for the classroom.

The task force also recommends that the board of teaching put more responsibility on teacher preparation programs to guarantee candidates have the proper academic skills.

“As an educator, I know a test is just a snapshot of one day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a sixth-grader or a teacher candidate,” Bellingham said. “These people attended colleges with accredited teacher preparation programs. I believe they have basic competency. I wouldn’t want a test to hold them back.”

Supporters of the skills test say they are designed to keep academically unqualified teaching candidates out of the classroom. The current tests were designed by Minnesota educators.

State data from July 2013 shows about 20 percent of candidates fail the basic skills test. The passage rate of minority teaching candidates is significantly lower than those of their white peers.

Most states are working to strengthen what it takes to become a teacher rather than removing requirements, said Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership. Bartholomew sat on the committee and was one of four members to oppose its recommendation.

“The rest of the world is going in the opposite direction,” Bartholomew said. “The goal should not be to make it easier; we need the best people we can get.”

Nationally 42 states require prospective teachers pass a skills test, with 29 of those states requiring entrance exams to enroll in teacher preparation programs, according to the most recent data compiled by the National Center of Teacher Quality. Just eight states require no academic skills exam to get a teaching license.

Kate Walsh, president of the teacher quality group, said it’s not enough to rely on teacher colleges to ensure graduates are academically prepared to teach. Her group has been critical of teacher preparation programs and found one-third of Minnesota colleges’ restricted admission to teacher training programs to the top half of college students’ academic performance.

“Most people are trying to figure out how to put more restrictions in, not take them out,” Walsh said. “Minnesota is the only state in the country contemplating removing their test.”

It wasn’t long ago the state was moving in the other direction.

In 2010, state leaders increased the rigor of the basic skills test, requiring college-level competency. In 2012, after a nearly unanimous vote in the Republican-led legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill requiring that teachers pass the skills test before entering the classroom, ending a grace period for those who couldn’t pass.

“I see this as a lowering of expectations for our teacher licensing candidates,” said state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who sat on the task force and wrote a dissenting report on its recommendation. “It’s a terrible message for parents to learn there may be a licensed teacher in their child’s classroom that has not shown college-level reading, writing and math skills.”