Why Illinois lawmakers want to change teacher licensing tests

SPRINGFIELD — Looking for ways to ease the state's growing teacher shortage, some Illinois lawmakers are again turning their attention to the battery of tests that prospective teachers must take to be licensed, arguing those tests deter many college students from trying to enter the profession.

A Senate committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that, among other things, would eliminate the “basic skills” test from the state's licensing requirements. That test is designed to make sure teachers have thorough knowledge in the subject areas they teach.

And on Wednesday, a House education committee held a lengthy hearing on the entire issue of testing requirements, with focus on both the basic skills test and a test used in Illinois and many other states known as “edTPA.” That test is designed to make sure teachers have the skills necessary to teach in a classroom, including teaching students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

“This is my number-one priority,” said Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat who chairs the House committee that deals with administration and licensing for K-12 education. “I have been worried and concerned about this since the day all this testing started, however many years ago it was, and I've worked on this bill ever since I took office.”

Currently, the Illinois State Board of Education uses the Test of Academic Proficiency, or “TAP 400” exam, to test a prospective teacher's basic skills. But ISBE announced in September that it would stop using that test on June 30, while it conducts a study to find a better exam. Meanwhile, the agency said it will continue allowing prospective teachers to use the standard ACT or SAT college entrance exams as a substitute.

But Tim Harrington, who teaches education at Governors State University, said the TAP 400 and ACT exams are merely tests of what a person already knows, while the SAT is intended to predict a student's likelihood of success in college.

“These may be good indicators of college readiness, but they're not good indicators of teacher readiness,” he said.

He suggested that as an alternative, the state should consider completion of the general education requirements in a teacher preparation program, or the completion of a bachelor's degree in a subject area, as sufficient proof that a prospective teacher understands the material.

Scherer, however, focused much of her attention on the edTPA program, which she faulted for being too expensive for many students and for being administered by the Massachusetts-based company Pearson VUE, which also administers numerous other professional and licensing exams used throughout the country.

With an average of 5,000 prospective new Illinois teachers taking that test each year, at a cost of $300 per test, Scherer noted that equates to $1.5 million a year going to Pearson — a number she repeated with emphasis several times.

“I just have concerns that, are we in the business of keeping Massachusetts afloat, or are we in the business of finding teachers when we have a severe teaching shortage?” Scherer said.

But a number of people who spoke to the committee defended edTPA, arguing that it actually does measure someone's readiness to be a teacher.

Robin Steans, who lobbies for the education advocacy group Advance Illinois, said edTPA is a good test specifically because it requires people to demonstrate actual classroom skills.

“One of the reasons that the entire education field has moved toward the edTPA … is because it used to be that if we cared about how a teacher would manage dealing with diverse learners, we tried to deal with that with a pencil-and-paper test, and I think we can agree that's not a terribly effective way to do that,” she said.

“If you want to understand whether a teacher has the skill set to work with diverse learners and do that effectively, to develop lesson plans that will differentiate in effective ways, manage a classroom in a way that is sensitive to those issues, the best way to do that is to actually see what's going on in a classroom,” she said.

Scott Wakely, superintendent of the Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School District in Kankakee County, said that as an administrator who has fired many teachers in his career, he doesn't think either the basic skills test or edTPA is much of a predictor of a future teacher's success in the classroom.

“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,” he said. “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. Those are the reasons teachers are being released. It's not the lack of what the universities are providing.”

“Yeah, on a videotape, they can do the dog-and-pony show,” he said, adding that the tests serve only as barriers to people entering the profession, particularly people of color.

Scherer said her committee is likely to vote on a bill dealing with teacher licensure testing next week.

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