Creating Pathways to Teaching (Not Building Walls): Eliminating the Academic Literacy Skills Test Will Produce More and More Effective Teachers

Every year the Alumni Association of the City College of New York hosts a “How to Get a Job” session. A panel: principals and teachers who serve on hiring committees interact with prospective teachers in the teacher preparation program. The overriding question this year: is it true that we no longer have to take the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST)? Followed by sighs of relief when the answer was “yes.”

Unfortunately the path to the classroom in New York State has become an obstacle course.

There is a dramatic difference between making teaching candidates jump through meaningless hoops and preparing teachers for the classroom.

A major study, What Matters Most:  Teaching for America’s Future (1996), an influential report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, made teaching the core of its “three simple premises” in its blueprint for reforming the nation’s schools. They are:

  • What teachers know and can do is the most important influence on what students learn.
  • Recruiting, preparing, and retaining good teachers is the central strategy for improving our schools.
  • School reform cannot succeed unless it focuses on creating the conditions under which teachers can teach and teach well.

For well over 100 years New York City has required prospective teachers to demonstrate competence on a pre-service exam. The Board of Examiners was created in 1898 along with the consolidation of the boroughs into New York City. The first wave of reform began with the passage of the Pendleton Act (1883), the law that created the federal civil service; hiring should be based on merit rather than political connections and hiring practices in the states began to reflect the  national reform movement.

The first wave of education reform in New York City was intended to move from patronage hiring to hiring based upon competence The creation of the Board of Examiners, a quasi-independent board created examinations for teachers and supervisors and promulgated rank-ordered lists. Teachers who received passing grades were appointed to positions in schools pursuant to their grade.  For over seventy years the hiring of teachers was a meritocracy; I remember sitting in the gymnasium at Brooklyn Tech High School for hours poring over questions and writing a series of essays. Months later I was grilled by a panel of examiners, it seems like it took hours, and, eventually a list was posted in the newspaper listing the candidates who passed the exam, with their grade. Yes, a form of public shaming, we survived.

In the 60’s the Board of Examiners became the subject of increasing criticism, with a rising civil rights movement, racial disparities in pass/fail rates challenging the validity of the tests: were the tests actually job-related?

In the 1972 the federal courts ruled the Board of Examiners tests unconstitutional. (Read the Court of Appeals decision here ), the Chancellor at the time supported the decision of the trial court,

In a memorandum to the Board of Education, quoted by Judge Mansfield in his opinion, Chancellor Scribner stated that to defend against plaintiffs’ case,

“… would require that I both violate my own professional beliefs and defend a system of personnel selection and promotion which I no longer believe to be workable.”

From the mid-seventies into the 90’s New York City required a 20-minute interview; eventually New York State instituted a two-exam system: the LAST and the ACT-W, passing rates were above the 90th percentile.

recent study conducted by Hemp Langford of SUNY/Albany and other scholars reviewed teacher quality,

We analyze 25 years of data on the academic ability of teachers in New York State and document that since 1999 the academic ability of both individuals certified and those entering teaching has steadily increased. These gains are widespread and have resulted in a substantial narrowing of the differences in teacher academic ability between high- and low-poverty schools and between White and minority teachers. We interpret these gains as evidence that the status of teaching is improving.

In spite of the findings Commissioner King imposed a series of four examinations (lawyers have one: the Bar Exam)

Unfortunately New York State jumped on the “raise the bar” bandwagon without reviewing teacher quality within the state. At the March 17, 2015 Regents Meeting the acting commissioner, defending the new hyper-testing requirements said,

“I think we all want … to send a very clear message that it should be difficult to enter the profession.”

No. I think the “very clear message” we want to send:  New York State is preparing highly qualified students to enter the profession; “difficult” tests do not assure quality.

The State Ed Department had certainly made it difficult to become a teacher, with no assurances that the hurtles would improve the quality of the workforce.

Prospective teachers in New York State were required to pass four separate examinations: edTPA, the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST), the Educating All Students (EAS) test and a Content Specialty Test (CST) in order to receive their initial teaching certificate.

The edTPA, created by Stanford University and administered and scored by Pearson,

Evidence of a candidate’s ability to teach is drawn from a subject-specific learning segment of 3-5 lessons from a unit of instruction taught to one class of students. Materials assessed as part of the edTPA process include video clips of instruction, lesson plans, student work samples, analysis of student learning, and reflective commentaries. Based on the submitted evidence, which is reviewed by trained scorers, faculty and candidates can discuss the impact of candidates’ teaching performance on student learning and determine ways to improve teaching. Faculty can analyze evidence of candidate performance to guide decision-making about program revision. State education agencies may use edTPA scores for licensure and accreditation

The Academic Literacy and Skills Test (ALAST) is a 210-minute, computer-based exam.

[The teacher candidate] reads a complex informational and narrative text and demonstrates command of key ideas and details in the text … makes logical inferences based on textual evidence … delineates and evaluates the argument and specific claims in a text.

The ALST consists of a selected response section and constructed responses, two focused responses and one extended response.

The Educating All Students (EAS) test is a 135-minute, computer-based exam “consisting of selected response items based on scenario-based responses … the competencies include Diverse Student Populations, English Language Learners, Students with Disabilities, Teacher Responsibilities and School-Home Relationships.”

The Content Specialty Test (CST) is a series of tests in about fifty different areas, the Multi-Subject Grades 1-6 (Common Branches) is a computer-based test:

Part One: Literacy and English Language Arts, Part Two: 40 selected-response items and a constructed response item in Mathematics: Part Three: 40 selected-response items and one constructed response item in Arts and Sciences, tests can be taken in three separate sections or at one time: 5 hours and 15 minutes.

About ten hours of actual testing time and days and days preparing for and constructing the video segment of the edTPA.

The tests and the test preparation materials cost the student about a thousand dollars.

Is there any evidence that the battery of testing will produce more qualified teachers and better student outcomes? The answer is no.

There is general agreement that the edTPA is valuable and should be integrated into college programs; “clinically-rich” programs incorporate a great deal of actual in-class practice teaching, and, a few colleges, very few, use videos as reflective teaching-learning tools for teacher candidates.

I asked the Director of Field Services in a teacher education program if he saw any relationship between the ALST and EAS exams and teacher quality. His answer, “I’m baffled, top students failed and marginal students passed, it makes no sense to me.”

In New York City just under 40% of new teachers leave within five years and I’m sure the same number accrues in inner city high poverty school districts across the state; teachers leave high poverty schools at much more accelerated rates than teachers in high achieving schools.

A core issue is teacher retention in schools with the lowest academic achievement. No matter the rigor of the preparation, if we don’t retain teachers the process is flawed.

Sadly the rush to “test to teacher excellence” appears to be driving away prospective teachers, enrollment in teacher preparation programs across the state is sharply down. SUNY deans report decreases approaching 40% in teacher preparation programs and more than 20% declines in CUNY schools. (New York City financially supports Teaching Fellows and Men Teach programs)

The folks in charge constantly beat the diversity drums, we should attract a more diverse teaching workforce; however, the failure rates on the ALAST and the EAS are significantly higher among black and Hispanic test takers. Are they “less literate,” or, is the test flawed?  And, how does the test correlate with teacher effectiveness? We have no idea.

Yes, I understand Finland only selects teachers from the top ten percent of applicants, Finland is also a nation with almost no childhood poverty and income equality, within their workforce teachers are well-paid. If we dragged Finnish teachers across the pond and dumped them in Rochester or East New York we would not see magic.

Rather than address the problem, attracting the right candidates, providing high quality teacher preparation programs based on evidence, supporting new teachers over their first few years, we are discouraging new applicants, using “tests” that are unproven, not valid or reliable and ignoring the discouraging exit of new teachers, from both the profession and from high needs schools.

There is hope on the horizon: the Council for the Accreditation Teacher Preparation (CAEP), the national organization that assesses teacher preparation programs requires a 3.0 GPA for admission to programs.

A year ago Regents Cashin and Collins, the co-chairs of the New York State Regents Higher Education Committee began to explore the validity of the exams. Instead of jumping to conclusions, the members held ten forums around the state. Many hundreds of college teachers and students attended the open forums, as well as the commissioner and other state staff. The message was clear, the exams were not culling the “best and the brightest,” the exams were creating barriers as well as chasing away potential teacher educators. The regents formed a task force co-chaired by deputy provost of SUNY and an officer of the state college teacher union (UUP) and made a series of recommendations.

The task force report (See Power Point here) made a series of recommendations, one of which is to eliminate one of the exams, the Academic Literary Skills Test (ALST). The print media, the NY Daily News, the NY Post jumped on the Board and screamed, “you’re ‘dumbing down’ teacher standards.”

Not true.

Teacher preparation programs must meet CAEP standards, including a 3.0 GPA for admission to programs, passing three exams, the edTPA, a process that takes weeks or months, the Educating All Children (EAS) and the Content Specialty test (CST). New York City has a “Teacher Finder” site, all prospective teacher posts resumes available to all principals, schools routinely interview applicants and commonly require a demonstration lesson, and, once appointed teachers serve four years as a probationary teacher.

In spite of all these efforts four of ten new teachers leave within five years.

Instead of bashing the Regents the media should be lauding the Regents.

Former Commissioner King, with the acquiescence of Chancellor Tisch, didn’t raise the bar, they built a wall.

The teacher candidates we met with are spending days in classrooms as student teachers, reading and writing in their graduate courses, studying for the required exams and grappling with creating and commenting on the video required in the edTPA process.

Policy should not simply appear out of the reform-y clouds, edicts announced from the mountaintops rarely impact the folks in the trenches. Regents Cashin and Collins listened to hundreds and hundreds of college teachers and teacher candidates, created a task force to convert the findings of the forums into actual policy. “Participation reduces resistance,” policy should grow from classrooms, from teachers, from students, from parents.

I applaud the actions of the regents, under the collaborative leadership of Chancellor Rosa the Board has created a process to include all of us, yes, there will be conflicts, the process can be slow, and, at times frustrating (Opt Out advocates), building consensus is at the core of our democratic system.

James Madison in Federalist # 10 warned us,

The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice [factions]. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.

Madison goes on the praise the republican form of government created in our constitution, “a happy combination … of  the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.”

Decisions, made in a transparent environment,  reflecting the will of the majorities, not the interests of a handful of self-proclaimed elites,, are the best decisions.

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5 responses to “Creating Pathways to Teaching (Not Building Walls): Eliminating the Academic Literacy Skills Test Will Produce More and More Effective Teachers

  1. “A core issue is teacher retention in schools with the lowest academic achievement. No matter the rigor of the preparation, if we don’t retain teachers the process is flawed.” [YES BUT HOW?]

    There is low correlation between preparation and retention. Exit interviews reveal that the failure of schools to create a good learning environment, providing psychological support for difficult students, having internships, supporting educators in maintaining a classroom (and out of classroom) atmosphere conducive to student learning, providing enough subject based education for pre K thru 6th grade educators so they can produce students capable of doing High School work, paying a new teacher adequately, providing the opportunity to continue their education and/or take additional courses at reasonable rates, and assisting new teachers in their career development with collegial support (not thru their supervisor/overseer) are the ways to help retention.

    I remind all that grading 150-170 test papers is an all day job if the test is not machine score-able, and if it is, than without student feedback, it has limited usefulness. When is this to be done? Outside of work, in addition to preparing lessons and both of these overtime tasks at NO PAY.

    Ridiculous class sizes, DOUBLE what the more affluent districts have, combined with 30% smaller compensation rates, is perhaps the single biggest deterrent to retention of teaching personnel. Some go to those districts, others go elsewhere.

    The economic crisis of the past decade provided staff. As the economy continues its recovery, the graduates will once again go where the economics dictate. Without incentives they won’t stay.

    The constant teacher bashing, as if the staff can singlehandedly combat large classes, poverty, poor parenting, single parent or no family homes, incompetent and/or inexperienced school administrations, and student health issues, has damaged the reputation of teaching as a profession and educators as individuals to a degree that only salary and respect over an equally long time MAY restore.

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  2. Really???With the elimination of Teacher Literacy Requirements, we have now taken what was the noblest of professions to a level of decertification unseen in any other profession. In every other field where there is a professional standard, that standard becomes the measuring stick for expectations.When our bodies require surgery, we look for the type of doctor who has the highest level of certification in that particular field. To get our cars fixed, we go to mechanic shops that have the highest rate of certified mechanics and records of successful repair. When our teeth fall apart, we look for certified dentists to fix them. And on and on. But when our children’s minds are being developed, and their skills are emerging, we send them to teachers who do not have to be certified as literate. What a f….g joke. I would challenge the NYS BD. Of Regents, whoever they are, to send their children or arrange for their grandchildren to attend some inner city school,under the tutelage of not only a teacher who is not certified, but projecting a bit, a bunch of supervisors who are not certified. I mean why do we need 4 year undergraduate Teacher’s Colleges, if the end result is negative certification. Good luck to any NYS Teacher’s College graduates who after acquiring their NYS Teaching Licenses, try to relocate to pursue their careers in other states, that once upon a time reciprocated Licensing requirements.
    As far as linking the notion of building walls as impediment to getting a good teaching workforce, that is a stretch, no pun intended. It suggests that old bugaboo that only ethnics should teach ethnics. Where have we heard that before? Hmm..Rudy Crew and his Efficacy group brought in from Seattle Wash determined during their first 3 weeks in the summer of that year, having not visited a single school, or spoken with any school leadership folks, had not met with any community leaders, made the declaration that having white teachers teach black children was a mistake, because they held out low expectations for those children, and that therefore the children were destined to fail So I can see where someone who held to that or similar views on ethnic teachers for ethnic students would regard a wall,designed to stop illegal ethnic from entering the US, as having a negative impact on recruiting those ethnics to teach in our schools. I mean after all, with literacy no longer a pre- requisite for certification, a wall would be a serious impediment to increasing what is fast becoming an under-subscribed professional workforce in out country.Maybe we can identify would be illegals, and mail them NYS Teaching LIcenses,

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  3. I remember those days. They called them the ‘fog a mirror and you are hired’ time.The unfortunate kids who passed (and I mean PASSED) through those classes were destined to drop out as they got into a class that actually had standards.

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  4. The entrance standards today are far higher than when we became teachers, we passed one test and were appointed off a list, now four separate exams (reduced to three), school level interview, a demonstration lesson, four years of probation and annual ratings based a rigorous rubric and student growth. Most of us were rarely observed and almost everyone received tenure.

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    • 1. There were admission standards for college.
      2. Two out of three never got degrees because it was TOUGH.
      3. The Colleges today continue to need to offer remedial reading classes to undergraduates, and are staffed by ‘adjuncts’, who know that if the passing rates are not good, that they won’t be rehired.
      4. The Bd. of Examiners gave tests and many applicants never scored high enough to get a job until the lists expired. That contributed to the schools only getting the best scorers. Whether that made them good educators is another story, but they were NOT ignorant.

      1-4 comprized the ‘filter, or sieve’ through which candidates passed. It’s not true today.

      5. The supervisory staff (at least in HS’s) were expert teachers first, and generally highly knowledgeable in their subjects–certainly not today, when supervisors are often assigned with way fewer than 10 years of teaching.
      6. Numerous current staff have remarked that tenure is now about “kissing a**”, and not competence, and that the schools administrators are looking for a high student pass rate, not the ability to impart knowledge. That’s why kids get HS diplomas but are not close to ready for college work.

      Lastly, entering inner city HS students (with increasingly rare exceptions) have no work ethic, do NO homework, and don’t have the skills they should have acquired in elementary school that are needed to go to HS. (see #6)

      Echoing Ken’s remarks, if the career of teaching attracted a surplus of applicants (perhaps due to interest, or pay, or benefits, or a ‘proper teaching load’), SCHOOLS WOULD HAVE A REAL CHOICE OF STAFF. You can believe that kids getting a diploma would be much more likely to be either college or work ready. Somehow people think that the charter, or public, schools can employ anyone AS A TEACHER, and their kids will get an education. RUBBISH–REALLY!

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