Test for teacher literacy ditched in New York State

May 25, 2021 • 1:00 pm

UPDATE: As reader aburstein points out below (and gives another source), the article below is four years old.  So the news is dated, but the rationale and actions are still in line with the dismantling of meritocratic assessment that continues today.


Once again a standardized test—this time for certification as a New York State teacher—has been eliminated. The axed test involved mastering reading and writing abilities, and is known as the Academic Literary Skills test, one of four tests previously required to be a ceritified teacher. Now the requirement to pass that test has been ditched.

Officials give several reasons for eliminating the test, but none are really convincing, and I suspect that they’re getting rid of it because it reduces equity in the teaching profession—minority teachers don’t pass the test as often as white ones.  If this is the real reason, then we have again encountered the dismantling of the meritocracy to achieve equity (representation of groups in proportions equal to what obtains in the general population). While you may say that this is “lowering standards” for becoming a New York teacher, state officials deny that; and yet the article itself implies that this is a lowering of standards.

Click on the website at ny.chalkbeat.org below to read the article:

First, the opening statement of the article implies that removing the literacy test does represent a lowering of standards (my emphasis):

State officials voted to make it easier to become a New York state teacher on Monday by knocking off one of the state’s main teacher certification requirements.

. . .The literacy test, which became mandatory in 2014, was one of several requirements the state added to overhaul teacher preparation in 2009. Regents hoped that a slate of more rigorous exams would help better prepare teachers for the real-life demands of the job and make for a more qualified teaching force.

In total, teachers have had to clear four certification hurdles, including the literacy exam. The other exams ask teachers to demonstrate their teaching skills, content knowledge, and understanding of students with particular needs.

Now “making it easier” may simply mean that people save time by not taking the test, but further information in the article suggests that’s not what they mean:

Though the intent was to create a more qualified teaching workforce, officials argued Monday the overhaul did not work out as planned — providing an unnecessary roadblock for prospective teachers. The exam faced legal challenges after a low percentage of black and Hispanic students passed the test. Only 38 percent of aspiring black teachers and 46 percent of aspiring Hispanic teachers passed the test between September 2013 and June 2016, compared to 69 percent of their white peers, according to the state education department officials.

Judge Kimba Wood (remember her?) ruled the test legal because it tested job-related skills and thus wasn’t discriminatory, but the state ditched the test anyway. The reasons are suggested by the differential passing rates given above, which would lead to lower proportions of minority teachers, as well as the words “unnecessary roadblock” above, whose meaning isn’t clear:

One gets the impression that this differential passing rate was unanticipated, and thus decisions were made post facto that the test was both “flawed” and “unnecessary”:

“The issue is not that literacy is not important, literacy is everything,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, who chairs the board’s committee on higher education. “It’s just that if you have a flawed test, does that raise standards or does that lower standards?”

But what evidence is there that the test is “flawed”? If it’s just the differential passing rate, that’s not evidence at all. What could be going on here is that the “flaw” is racism, and that would be based on Ibram Kendi’s assertion (now widely accepted) that if there are inequities in a system (in this case, the test), then there is structural racism in the system (the test). But there isn’t independent evidence for that.

And then there’s a flat dismissal that eliminating the test involves lowering standards:

Chancellor Betty Rosa gave a particularly strong defense of the changes, arguing that some of those who have been critical of this move have “no clue” and that dropping the test does not represent a lowering of standards.

“The theme song … has been ‘Oh you’re lowering the standards,” Rosa said. “No, ladies and gentlemen.”

To me, this doesn’t sound like a “strong defense.”

If they want to eliminate the test because minorities pass it at a disproportionately low rate, thus creating inequities in the teaching corps, then they should admit that. There’s no shame involved in saying that you are getting rid of the test as a form of affirmative action or academic reparations, for one can argue that we need minority teachers as role models. But then you shouldn’t pretend that the test is “flawed” if you don’t have independent evidence for that.

And yes, it does involve lowering standards for admission, as do all affirmative action methods. But remember that “lowering standards” may not be injurious if truly qualified people are being eliminated under the present system (Harvard, after all, would be just as good if they admitted not the top 4.6% of applicants but the next best 5%).

Also, one can argue that relaxing the standards must be balanced against the potential benefit of having teachers that serve not only as role models, but themselves are given a leg up in a profession that historically has discriminated against them. All I would like here is a little honesty on the part of those who ditched the test. But honesty is in short supply in these parlous days.

36 thoughts on “Test for teacher literacy ditched in New York State

  1. On the topic of Kendi and the thoroughly anti-rational cult of “wokeism”, it has been announced on Penguin’s website that McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America is to be published on 10/26. One hopes that he will address the “disparity fallacy”, which has been analyzed by T Sowell, Walter Williams, and Coleman Hughes in various trenchant pieces over the past several years, and perhaps what Glenn Loury has called “identity epistemology” as well.

  2. “Chancellor Betty Rosa gave a particularly strong defense of the changes, arguing that some of those who have been critical of this move have “no clue” and that dropping the test does not represent a lowering of standards.” – I agree with our host: that’s not “a particularly strong defense”. It is, perhaps, a passionate (if misguided) one though.

    1. Yes, it just sounds like she was hurling weak epithets (and not particularly clever ones), a sort of adult equivalent of “No, it’s not!” as in response to the rejoinder, “Yes it is!” and so on. Or “I’m rubber, you’re glue…” Something along those intellectual lines.

  3. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen with potential lawyers and bar exams, or prospective doctors and the United States Medical Licensing Exam. I’d rather not have a lawyer represent me who couldn’t pass a bar exam, or surgery done by someone who couldn’t pass an exam required to become a doctor…

    1. Heaven forbid! Ken C. (the local attorney here) and I both passed the NY Bar Exam and I’m sure he’ll agree with me that it was HELL. In my year, 2002, it had just a 42% first time pass rate.
      But we MUST keep standards and these kinds of exams…just… do.

  4. “There’s no shame involved in saying that you are getting rid of the test as a form of affirmative action or academic reparations, for one can argue that we need minority teachers as role models.”

    I doubt, however, that a semi-literate minority teacher is a good role model.

    1. Rather than remove the test to make qualifying easier for minority teachers, I would have thought ensuring that they can attain that level to be more appropriate. An extra curriculum module could be devised, as optional, to assist those teachers that may struggle to pass the test.

      1. I like that idea better. Now I have no knowledge about how the testing is done, but for other advanced testing areas there is all manner of practice exams to help prepare the adult student to earn credentials in their field.
        OTOH there is the urgency to have more representation among teachers and just a plain need for more teachers (it not being a well payed line of work). So these extra hurdles would be discouraging.

    2. I doubt, however, that a semi-literate minority teacher is a good role model.

      But surely any non-minority student who exposed an incompetent teacher for a fool would face jail (or immolation – coming soon to a theocracy near us) for bullying the incompetent at their workplace.

    3. If a student notices that a high proportion of their minority teachers are more or less illiterate, they are likely to actually develop some of that “unconscious bias” we here so much about.

  5. Hmmm…I have a hard time getting exercised about the elimination of a test that they only started giving in 2014. This is not like the SAT where we have decades of correlational data to say why it’s a useful indicator.

    I also in principle support the revised solution, i.e. folding literacy into other skills tests. After all, basically any essay-type writing can be used to judge your literacy. If they’re having the teachers create example lesson plans or example student test questions, then just cut off their access to the internet, sit them in front of a keyboard, and use the result to assess literacy as well as lesson planning.

    1. This is not like the SAT where we have decades of correlational data to say why it’s a useful indicator.

      How much correlation data – and of what quality – did the SATs have in the first 5 years of their operation?
      I’m not familiar with the American system, but I was familiar with the UK system until 30-odd years ago where the somewhat-similarly positioned 11-+ system was based on decades of data from psychologist Cyril Burt.
      OK, that data was fraudulently invented – and done so stupidly that the fraud had been obvious to someone who actually read Burt’s published papers during the last 25 years of his career. But it did provide a justification for the structure of British Education from the 1950s to the mid-80s. It’ll probably be re-introduced into England after Independence.

    2. So my NY teacher contact weighed in and said it’s reasonable to expect they ditched the test because it was flawed. But also noted that there has been a large number of teachers quitting during Covid, so streamlining requirements in general as a way to certify teachers faster may be a big part of it too.

      1. There have been an unprecedented number of retirements at my workplace.

        I think many have been “on the fence” for a while and COVID swept them clean past the fence.
        Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.

        My wife is retiring in a few days. I’ll be hanging on until late winter next year (2022). We are very lucky to be in a position to do this. (We’ve also worked damned hard and deferred gratification for 40+ years.)

  6. I recommend this article written by Aaron Sibarium, a young very sharp reporter, who writes for the Washington Free Beacon. (When at Yale, he wrote opinion for the Yale Daily News.)

    Here is a summary of the article from his twitter feed:

    “In New York City, adult activists are siccing students on parents who oppose the NYC Education Department’s woke agenda . If the targeted parents push back, they are accused of attacking kids.”

    (By woke agenda, Sibarium means the efforts to get rid of entrance tests-to Stuyvesant and other prestigious NYC public schools, which result in large numbers of mainly poor Asian students accepted, and very few black and hispanic. “Wokness” is an unrelenting assault on competence and achievement.)


  7. Let’s see, is reading important for students’ learning?

    Yes, it is the foundation for all the rest.

    Should teachers be competent at reading and writing?

    Well, do you want kids to be competent at reading and writing? How can you teach something you yourself haven’t mastered?

    Theater of the absurd.

    Oh, and the spike in violent crime in Minneapolis and elsewhere? Abolish the police! (/sarcasm)

  8. What is wrong with writing tests appropriate for the academic background, experience, or country of origin, etc. of each teacher?

    A background-scaled test so the numbers come out the same for each background. Wouldn’t that be genuine work to account for differences in training?

    1. What is wrong with writing tests appropriate for the academic background, experience, or country of origin, etc. of each teacher?

      Well, there’s the tiny difficulty of having to write a new exam (and “past papers”, and the other administrivia of education) for every teacher …
      Then the problem of comparing one teacher with another … avoiding which is probably the whole point of the exercise.
      I suppose you could try to kick the can down the road for a few years (a political eternity) by proposing a core testing set, then some testing modules on “Ebonics lit”, “Asian (non-ideographic) lit, “Asian (ideographic) lit”, “Hispanic (Spanish) lit” and “Hispanic (American) lit”, but that would have the undesirable effect of being able to compare one teacher with another, which is an unacceptable thought-crime.

    2. The country of origin of these teachers is almost certainly going to be the USA. The country where they are going to be teaching is the USA and most of the students are going to be from the USA. What’s wrong with asking teachers born in the USA, teaching children form the USA in the USA to meet USA standards?

      1. Right – BTW I have written a Devil’s Advocate sort of question, and I agree with your jist.

        The idea of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, so for this question, I am thinking : we have a heterogeneous population, some who do not know what “regatta” is, some who do not know how to divert water from a river to crops using hydraulics, and that shows up on a test of literacy as, so it is claimed, “racism”.

        So make a better test. But that is not what the administrators decided – they waived the test, with apparently no other test to account for it.

        That, in my view, is telling. Is my point. “Structural racism” is the top priority, so let’s just “dismantle” the system.

    3. How would this be the best solution to the problem? Why lower standards? What purpose does that serve, besides simply filling seats? Why not just hire teachers randomly off the street?

      Many (I’m not sayin you do) have the very mistaken belief that teaching is simply lecturing. This could not be further from the truth. It is a very specific set of skills and tools and it is not easy to learn the skills (for most people). It’s also a damned hard job, that requires far (far!) more that 40 hours per week. My wife (public primary school teacher in an “urban” USA district) has been working 12 hour days 6.5 days per week since mid-August (2020, 2 weeks before term started). She is so burned out it’s absurd. Fortunately, she is going to retire at end of term.

      1. “How would this be the best solution to the problem?”

        Who said it was? Not me.

        The “problem”, if I follow, is the spectre of “structural racism”. The question here is removing a teacher test because it is, essentially, “racist”.

        If the sum total background of teacher A is very different from teacher B, then in theory, a test could be written to account for that – different questions, same hoop.

        So a victim of “structural racism” will have an opportunity to join a teacher who enjoyed “white privilege”, in the same school – making the school better poised to help victims of “structural racism”.

        I don’t see how this proposal needs to be taken personally.

        1. I’m not taking it personally.

          Many people think teaching is nothing special — anyone could do it. The idea of lowering standards plays into this false idea. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of this: What’s the big deal, you just stand up there and talk to the kids, right?)

          1. “Many people think teaching is nothing special — anyone could do it. The idea of lowering standards plays into this false idea.”

            If I read the thing I wrote up above again – I am imagining that I truly sought to correct for “structural racism” by working to update and adjust the testing system instead of waiving an entire test to achieve the same objective, as this post describes (four years late, it seems, but nevertheless a good question).

            Those specific things are characterized as “lowering standards”. OK. Then it is claimed to “play into” another separate topic.

            I’m just trying to follow the thought process here.

  9. Speaking for my brothers and sisters of the myopiax community, let me repeat our demand that the vision test be eliminated from the process of licensing drivers. When those of us who have other ways of seeing are awarded driver’s licenses in exactly the same proportion as individuals with 20:20 vision, then we can regard the driving system as truly reflecting Equity and Inclusion. BTW, I am happy to report that license renewal in my district already seems to follow these principles. The letters on the screen appeared to me to be in the Russian alphabet, and when I identified them as живѣте and иже, the examiner didn’t bat an eye and blithely passed me.

    1. Actually Jon, I support your proposal in principle. But from a road safety (particularly bicyclists, pedestrians and the-animals-formerly-destined-to-be-roadkill) point of view, might I recommend the levelling be done by blindfolding all drivers who are not registered blind to a “legally blind” equivalence.
      Installation of a Safety Spike on all vehicles, obviously.
      Ohhh, the terrible cost to vehicle manufacturers of replacing those lovingly-crafted touch-screen interfaces with Braille displays.
      Switching from manual to automatic every 57th gear change, and switching side of the road on alternating days would also level the playing swamps quite nicely.
      Exemptions for professional drivers in vehicles with 10+ (passengers XOR tonnes freight) design load might be considered.

  10. The nub of the problem is how many people would want to have a semi literate teacher educate their children. This I imagine continues to perpetuate the children of minorities to be underachieving academically. Sheer madness

    1. It is a shame that the test has been dropped. We have a test like it in California, the CBEST. I took it in the early 1980’s. I fell that anybody who couldn’t pass it had no business being in the classroom.

    2. Obviously the only way out of this impasse is for all children to be educated only by their parents.
      Which might actually be exactly the aim of some of the campaigners. “Darling little Quinetine shouldn’t have to associate with those horrible little oiks, except as staff.”

  11. In cases like this, I would agree with lowering standards only to a point where the evidence indicates that above it there’s practically no difference in performance. If the standard is set lower than that point, I don’t think it can be justified on affirmative-action grounds, let alone equity. (I’m talking only about occupations whose results we consider important, e.g., education, airline pilots, surgeons, etc.)

    To illustrate, let’s imagine that an IQ test is required for a given role, and that for this role there’s a positive correlation between performance and IQ up to an IQ of 120: a person with an IQ of 118 will perform better than one with an IQ of 115, but performance will be essentially the same between someone with an IQ of 150 and someone with an IQ of 120. In such a case it would be perfectly fine to lower the IQ requirement to 120, but not lower.

    In very cognitively demanding professions there may not be an IQ above which variations in IQ no longer make a difference, but that’s not the case for simpler occupations (Einstein and a person with an IQ of 90 would presumably perform equally well in a job whose sole requirement was serving ice cream).

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