Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

Who Needs a Basic Skills Test?

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Rescinding the Basics Skills Test for Teachers      

To become a licensed teacher in Minnesota, a teaching candidate must pass a Basic Skills Test in reading, writing, and math.  In its infinite wisdom, the Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force appointed by Minnesota’s Board of Teaching has recommended that the Basics Skills Test be abolished.  After all, why should adults who teach our children to read, write, and learn math be expected to have a basic proficiency in these areas?  Abolishing the Basic Skills Test sends a terrible message to the general public and ultimately devalues the profession.

In 2013, The Board of Teaching commissioned a Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force to make recommendations on requirements for: “teacher applicants to demonstrate mastery of reading, writing, and mathematics skills through nationally normed assessments, a professional skills portfolio, or accredited college coursework, among other methods of demonstrating skill mastery.” It held its first meeting on August 1, 2013.  After eight meetings, the Advisory Task Force had completed its work and voted overwhelmingly to recommend to the Board of Teaching that the Basic Skills Test be repealed.  There were 20 Advisory Task Force members representing school administrators, teachers, professors of education, the state legislature, the Board of Teaching, Education Minnesota (the state’s largest teachers’ union), Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), Minnesota School Board Association, the Nonpublic Education Council, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Chambers of Commerce.  Four Advisory Task Force Members wrote a dissenting opinion.  They included two legislators and the two representatives from the Chambers of Commerce

John Bellingham, a middle school teacher and chairman of the state Board of Teaching and Task Force member, was convinced by testimony from teacher candidates who had failed the test that the test was too difficult.  He feels that teachers who have graduated from accredited colleges and universities have competency in the subjects they teach, because they have graduated from the college or university.  He states, “These people (teachers) attended colleges with accredited teacher preparation programs.  I believe they have basic competency.  I wouldn’t want a test to hold them back.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust that a teacher having graduated from an accredited teacher preparation program has basic competency, and I certainly would want him/her to pass a test demonstrating that he/she does.  If a teacher doesn’t have to pass a basic skills test, where is the accountability?  We ask our students to pass tests and to be accountable.  Shouldn’t we hold our teachers to the same standards?

There is also a problem with Bellingham’s logic.  If licensed elementary school teachers are truly proficient in the teaching of reading, inarguably the most important skill for students from kindergarten through third grade to acquire, why are over 30% of our state’s fourth graders not reading at a basic reading level?  Why do they have such difficulty decoding the printed word from the page?  Why do over 60% of our state’s fourth graders not read proficiently, with good comprehension?  We have similar issues with math instruction and performance.   Do we really want our children’s teachers to not have basic skills in reading, writing, and math?  If they don’t have these skills, how can we expect these skills to be taught to their students?

Critics of the Basics Skills Test claim that that the test is culturally insensitive and there are no accommodations given for people with disabilities.   We don’t know that the Basic Skills Test is culturally insensitive, but, if it is, the exam provider, Pearson, has agreed to work with the Board of Teaching to review all concerns with the exams, and make changes, if necessary—free of charge!  Representatives of Pearson had already met with the Advisory Task Force to discuss the creation of the exams, and they also answered questions about perceived cultural insensitivity.  Accommodations for people with disabilities are also acceptable practices.  Our students receive accommodations, and teacher candidates should as well.

As part of their dissenting opinion, the dissenter’s group stated, “The task force’s recommendation to eliminate Basic Skills Exams is an over-reaction, and is out-of-step with efforts by other states and organizations to raise expectations for educators.  Having a nationally-recognized, third-party exam of new teacher competency in the basic skills is important—not just as a safeguard for students, but as a part of an overall strategy to elevate the teaching profession.”

They went on to write, “With respect to the task force’s second recommendation that the Board of Teaching develop requirements for teacher preparation programs to provide assurances that candidates are ‘proficient in reading, writing and math at a college level,” we feel that the greater emphasis on strengthening teacher preparation is critical, however, providing assurances is a far cry from requiring proficiency.”

This debate is all about accountability.  People in higher education and our teachers’ unions do not like to be held accountable.  The Basic Skills Exam holds higher education and teachers’ unions accountable, making them very uncomfortable.   These professionals complain that education isn’t a valued profession, but they themselves are devaluing the profession by watering down its standards.

We require physicians, surgeons, and attorneys to pass skills and knowledge tests to become members of their respective professions.  Should we not require the same of our children’s teachers?

John Alexander

Head of School, Groves Academy

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