News Local/State

(Teacher) Testing 1, 2, 3…

Students at Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School have asked why their district has no Black teachers.

Students at Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School have asked why their district has no Black teachers. Courtesy of Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School

Illinois lawmakers are considering a variety of bills that would change the requirements to earn a teaching certificate.

Right now, to become a licensed teacher in Illinois, you have to pass at least three tests.

The first one is called “basic skills,” and you have to pass that before your college will even allow you to take education courses. Later, there’s a content test for your chosen subject area. And finally, there’s a test called the edTPA, which involves making a video during your one semester of student teaching.

Critics point to these requirements as one big reason that 85 percent of superintendents say they have a teacher shortage. And that shortage is compounded by a lack of diversity. More than 80 percent of Illinois teachers white, while fewer than half of students are white.

Scott Wakeley, superintendent of Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School District 307, said his students notice.

“We have a committee of our African American students that we meet with, and one of the biggest issues that we face is: Why doesn’t Bradley-Bourbonnais and other schools have teachers who look like me? We have zero African-American teachers,” he said.

Wakeley came to Springfield last week to tell lawmakers that people who are good at taking tests don’t necessarily make the best teachers.

“This is my 29th year in education and 16th as a superintendent. I’ve never released a teacher for lack of knowledge of basic skills. It’s always been can’t get along, can’t play nice in the sandbox — whether it’s with kids, whether it’s with fellow teachers, whether it’s with parents.”

The term “basic skills test” actually refers to three standardized tests. To be allowed to take education courses, you first have to score a 22 on the ACT, or an 1110 on the SAT. Another comprehensive four-hour test called TAP (or a Test of Academic Proficiency) is being phased out in June.

Failure to hit cut scores on these tests has kept countless candidates out of the teacher pipeline. Kyle Thompson, assistant regional superintendent of a seven-county area in East Central Illinois, recited a list of examples.

“We have a minority female college student who wanted to teach Spanish. She was fluent in Spanish, but couldn’t pass the math portion of the basic skills test despite many costly attempts,” he said. “Heartbroken, she chose a new career path. She would’ve been an exceptional Spanish teacher.”

Thompson, who has a PhD, included himself on the list of near-misses. He confessed that he had scored a mere 19 on the ACT, flunked his content test in history five times, and had to take the TAP test twice.

At the University of Illinois Chicago, Catherine Main helps current preschool teachers earn state licenses. Her students all have a GPA of at least 3.0, and an average of 14 years experience. One-third already hold a masters degree. But they still can’t get certified as preschool teachers.

“What they have facing in front of them is this barrier right now of this basic skills test,” Main said. “And guess what? When I went out and pounded the pavement to get a bunch of private dollars, and I said, ‘I want to give them what all the rich kids get, which is some high-end tutoring from the North Shore on ACT testing,’ they came to UIC every single Saturday last semester and they practiced solving 10th grade math problems as fast as they possibly could.

“And you know what? Their ACT scores did jump three, four points,” Main said. “But for some of them, it’s still not enough.”

As bad as it sounds to eliminate a standard that’s been titled “basic skills,” a bill to nix this barrier already has bipartisan support. What some state officials are fighting to hang on to instead are content area tests and the edTPA — that video test for student teachers. Supporters say hey, at least it shows your ability to stand in front of a classroom and deliver a lesson. But critics like Wakeley say there simply isn’t a test to measure the qualities that really count.

“Yeah, on a videotape, they can do the dog and pony show,” he said. “But until it gets real, and you have to make relationships with the students — because they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care — I know it’s a cliché, but clichés start that way because they’re probably true.”

The one thing all stakeholders agree on is that testing is only partly to blame for the shortage. Teacher salaries, pensions, and working conditions are also being debated at the capitol.