ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Illinois Basic Skills Test narrows teacher pipeline
by Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is assistant provost for continuing studies and special initiatives at Dominican University in River Forest, where he teaches courses in legal studies and English. He writes and speaks frequently on employment law and professional education issues.
Recent efforts by the state of Illinois to improve the quality of teachers have failed to do so, with the additional unintended consequence of reducing the pipeline of minority teacher candidates.
The Illinois Basic Skills Test (IBST) is a pre-professional examination administered to college and university students seeking teacher certification. Students must pass the test in order to be admitted to a teacher education program in Illinois. By state statute, the exam must assess “the basic skills of reading, writing, grammar and mathematics.”
The Chicago Tribune described the test’s difficulty as “roughly eighth-grade to 11th-grade level.” According to its designers, the IBST “assures Illinois citizens that all of their public school educators exceed a uniform minimum skill standard.”
Illinois is not alone in its use of a prescreening exam to weed out prospective teachers with an insufficient mastery of “basic skills.” Since at least the 1980s, states have increasingly demanded higher admissions standards for teacher preparation programs, with more than 40 states now requiring a passing score on a basic skills test. At the federal level, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandates “highly qualified” teachers as measured in part by performance on a “rigorous state test.”
Illinois has been administering a basic skills test since 1998. The IBST was uncontroversial until 2010 due to a generally high pass rate. For 2008-09, 86 percent of test-takers passed; for 2009-10, 84 percent passed.
Urged on by the Chicago Tribune editorial board and an influential report by the Illinois Education Research Council, the state raised the standards for a passing score on the IBST from 50 percent correct answers to 75 percent. Under these new standards, the 2010-11 pass rate plummeted to 41 percent.
It surely came as no surprise that making the IBST harder to pass would result in a lower pass rate, although cutting the potential teacher pipeline in half was likely not the objective of advocates for tougher standards. Raising the bar for entry into the teaching profession certainly falls within the purview of the state and would not normally be a legal issue. The problem, however, is that raising the bar impacted different racial and ethnic groups differently.
Table 1 on the next page reflects the pass rates by race/ethnicity for the 2008-09 test, which was administered under the old standard. Even under this more lenient standard, a significant racial disparity can be seen. A white test-taker was 50 percent more likely to pass than an African-American test-taker.
The new requirements exacerbated the racial disparity, which can be seen in Table 2 in the pass rates by race/ethnicity for the 2010-11 test. Under the new standards, a white test-taker is 100 percent more likely to pass than a Latina/o test-taker and 300 percent more likely to pass than an African-American test-taker.
The increasing racial disparity in the wake of the heightened standard raises legal red flags. A 2001 nationwide survey of teacher certification standards found that all state licensure tests examined had lower pass rates for minority candidates and that raising passing test score requirements impacted minority candidates more than white candidates.
No evidence exists that Illinois or other states are using basic skills tests to intentionally discriminate against minority candidates. Indeed, the developer of the IBST seems to have gone to great lengths to eliminate bias from the test and to “include content, language and perspectives that reflect the diversity of the Illinois population.”
This lack of what Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger called “invidious intent,” however, does not immunize Illinois from a charge of racial discrimination.
Testing and Title VII
The U.S. Supreme Court first dealt with the issue of pre-employment testing in the landmark 1971 case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. Prior to the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the employer in Griggs followed a blatantly discriminatory policy of restricting African-American employees to the low-paying labor department.
The day Title VII took effect, the employer instituted new testing and education requirements for employment in all departments, except labor, with an exception for individuals currently working in those departments. The practical effect of this policy was to exclude African-Americans from higher-paying positions and to protect the jobs of white incumbents who would be unable to satisfy the new requirements.
The District Court, rather curiously, found no discriminatory intent in the new testing and education requirements instituted the very day Title VII took effect and that perpetuated the employer’s segregated workforce by other means. The Supreme Court accepted this finding, but nevertheless held that Title VII “proscribes not only overt discrimination but also practices that are fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.” This has come to be known as the “disparate impact theory” of discrimination.
In disparate impact cases, the burden initially falls on the plaintiff to show that a testing procedure has a discriminatory impact. The burden then shifts to the defendant, who can offer evidence that the testing procedure demonstrates what Justice Burger called “a manifest relationship to the employment in question.” The plaintiff can still prevail where a test is shown to be job-related if other less discriminatory means of evaluating applicants are available.
In teacher pre-licensing cases, proponents of rigorous testing point to the time and effort states put into validating their exams. Despite these efforts, however, multiple studies have found weak or nonexistent predictive correlation between pre-licensing exam scores and student teaching evaluations. Going beyond student teaching to real classroom experience, Jerome D’Agostino of The Ohio State University and Sonya Powers of the University of Iowa, who specialize in evaluation and assessment issues, recently reviewed 123 studies and found “that test scores were at best modestly related to teaching competence.”
The research strongly suggests that pre-licensure tests like the IBST either lack “a manifest relationship” to teaching or that less discriminatory means of evaluating potential teachers exist. However, applying federal employment discrimination law to teacher pre-licensing exams is not that simple because the responsibility for this possible discriminatory impact is divided.
The federal NCLB Act requires a “rigorous state test,” but the federal government does not specify what test should be used nor does it employ teachers. The states, in part to satisfy these federal requirements, select the tests, but do not employ the teachers. Local school boards employ the teachers, but play no role at all in setting licensure requirements.
But whatever the area of responsibility, the data clearly show that so far, the result of changes to the ITBS cut score has affected minority teacher candidates in a much more dramatic way than it has their white counterparts.
Joshua D. Angrist and Jonathan Guryan, “Teacher Testing, Teacher Education, and Teacher Characteristics,” The American Economic Review, 2004
“Basic Skills Pass/Fail Data,” Coalition for Effective Teaching, at http://illinoisbasicskillstest.com/bstestpassfaildata/ , 2011
Joy M. Barnes-Johnson, “Preparing Minority Teachers: Law and Out of Order,” The Journal of Negro Education, 2008
Michael T. Blotevogel, “Testing Title VII’s Patience? The Need for Better Remedies When State ‘Teacher Testing’ Requirements Have a Disparate Impact on Employment Opportunities for Minority Populations,” Washington University Law Quarterly, 2003
Jerome V. D’Agostino and Sonya J. Powers, “Predicting Teacher Performance with Test Scores and Grade Point Average: A Meta-Analysis,” American Education Research Journal, 2009
Illinois School Code, 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/21- 1a(a)(2012)
Audrey Mikitovics and Kevin D. Crehan, “Pre-Professional Skills Test Scores as College of Education Admission Criteria,” Journal of Education Research , 2002
Karen J. Mitchell, et al., The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teacher Quality, 2001
National Evaluation Systems, Inc., Illinois Certification Testing System , 2004
No Child Left Behind Act of 2011, 20 U.S.C. § 6319 (2012)
“Pass/fail/fail/fail,” Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2011
Pearson Education, Inc., Illinois Certification Testing System 2011-12 Registration Bulletin, 2011
Pearson Education, Inc., Illinois Certification Testing System Annual and Cumulative Examinee Performance on the Basic Skills Test and By Content-Area Test, By Ethnicity , 2011
Mark A. Rothstein, et al., Employment Law (2d ed.), 1999
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, 2012
Bradford R. White, et al., Leveling Up: Narrowing the Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois, IERC Policy Research Report No. 2008-1, 2008
Andrew J. Wayne and Peter Youngs, “Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement Gains: A Review,” Review of Educational Research, 2003
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