Nearly half of California’s potential teachers struggle to pass a gauntlet of standardized tests required for them to earn a credential, making it more difficult for the state to put a dent in a persistent teacher shortage.
But that could change soon, as officials at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing look to reform the entire landscape of tests that teachers have to take to enter the profession.
While the issue of student testing has always received considerable attention, the tests prospective teachers in California must take have received far less. It is an issue that is attracting more attention recently, as state education leaders begin to acknowledge these tests as major stumbling blocks to attracting new teachers to the profession. At the same time, educators have to ensure that reforming the testing regimen, which could include eliminating some tests, doesn’t lower the standards for basic proficiency that these tests are supposed to ensure.
About 40 percent of students seeking to become teachers give up because they fail to pass the required tests at various steps along the path to getting their credential, according to data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. For prospective math or science teachers, that number climbs to 50 percent.
The tests that future teachers are required to take vary depending on what they plan to teach, but there are four assessments that almost all must take:
- California Basic Educational Skills Test, or CBEST, which tests reading, math and writing skills and is usually taken before a student is accepted into a teacher preparation program.
- California Subject Examinations for Teachers, referred to as CSET, tests subject knowledge. Elementary school and special education teachers earn a multiple subject credential by passing a trio of tests — in science and math; reading, language, literature, history and social science; and physical education, human development and visual and performing arts. Middle and high school teachers earn single-subject credentials in areas such as art, biology or English by passing at least one subject exam.
- Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, which tests reading instruction, is required for elementary and special education teachers before they obtain a credential.
- California Teaching Performance Assessment, which measures how well teacher candidates assess students, design instruction, organize subject matter and other skills. The test must be taken by all teachers, except special education teachers, before they can earn a credential.
Reforming the testing process could also mean economic relief for some teacher hopefuls, especially those who have had to take a test multiple times. Tests can cost anywhere from $99 for a single-subject exam each time it is taken to $247 for the three tests that make up the CSET: Multiple Subjects Test. The CBEST costs $41 if a paper test is taken and $61 if a test is taken by computer.
When students take those tests depends on the teacher preparation program in which they are enrolled. For instance, some teacher preparation programs require that students pass the CSET before admission, while some allow students to enroll first, then require they pass the test before they begin student teaching.
“I am most concerned by the amount of testing we put teachers through in order to get them credentialed,” said Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Amber Wilson is currently teaching special education at a middle school in Twin Rivers Unified in Sacramento on a short-term staff permit, while she is working to earn her full credential in a teacher preparation program offered by the Sacramento County Office of Education. In California public and private universities, county offices of education and school districts can be approved by the state’s credentialing commission to offer teacher preparation programs.
Wilson, 27, failed the CSET tests required for a multiple subject credential the first time she took them. She passed two of the three tests the second time she tried, but failed the math and science test. Wilson tried a third time, edging closer to the passing score of 220 with each attempt.
The pressure on Wilson continues to build as the deadline to pass the test looms. If she doesn’t pass the test by the end of the school year she will lose her place in the teacher preparation program, as well as the short-term staff permit. Wilson expects to meet with district officials to discuss her status in February.
The short-term staff permit that Wilson has allows a school district to fill a needed position when a certificated teacher can’t be found for it. Students on a short-term staff permit have one year to pass the CSET while they teach in the classroom.
Those tests seem to be the biggest hurdle for teachers.
Although the CSET had an overall cumulative passing rate of 80.8 percent between 2003 and 2017, the cumulative passing rates for single-subject tests varied from 96.9 percent for one in preliminary educational technology to 7.9 percent on the test for prospective teachers of English learners. The cumulative passing rate is the percentage of people who pass the test over a specific period of time, including those who take the test more than once.
“The CSET stands as a significant barrier to enrollment in many teacher education programs, especially in high-need fields such as mathematics and science,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Wilson said she has refused to give up, taking a test preparation class, making flash cards and answering practice questions online for the math and science test. In November she took the test for the fourth time. Her score went down. “I got really anxious and didn’t do well on the test,” she said.
Wilson is paying for her teacher preparation program with a state grant from the California Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program, which helps so-called “classified” employees like bus drivers, office workers and campus monitors who don’t have a teaching credential to become teachers.
In some cases, the CSET has become an obstacle to implementing that program. For example, the Riverside County Office of Education hasn’t been able to distribute all of the money the state has provided for tuition because some prospective teachers could not pass the tests required to join the program, said Barbara Howard, director of Teacher Innovation for the county office. She said at least 5 percent of the students in the program finish their bachelor’s degrees and satisfy all of the other requirements needed to start their teacher preparation program, but can’t pass the CSET.
The state currently offers alternatives to taking some of the credentialing tests and may consider adding other options to testing.
The CBEST, for example, can be waived if a student scores at least a 500 on the SAT English exam and at least 550 on the SAT math exam, or scores a 22 or higher on the ACT English exam and a 23 or higher on the ACT math exam. The test also can be waived if a student passes the CSET: Multiple Subjects test, plus a related writing examination, or earns a 3 or above on specific high school Advanced Placement tests.
In some cases, the CSET can be waived if students pass commission-approved coursework, aligned to each test, while they are earning their undergraduate degrees.
With a persistent teacher shortage in California, officials at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing are looking to reform teacher testing. Earlier this year members of the commission discussed the issue and decided to take a closer look at what teachers should know about the subjects they are teaching and how that should be measured.
Teaching credential candidates and others in the education community have called for more alternatives to taking the CSET, like allowing some university degrees or a combination of coursework and exams to meet the requirement, Sandy said.
Alternate pathways to prove competency and better ways to align teachers’ tests to what is being taught in today’s classrooms are two of many things the commission will consider over the next year, Darling-Hammond said. That could mean changing the tests, or even eliminating some, she said.
“Our job is to make sure teachers know the content in a way, and teach in a way, that can help students learn,” Darling-Hammond said.
The commission will likely form a panel or task force to study the issue over the next year, she said. The goal is to increase the number of people who want to be teachers in a state with a serious teacher shortage, while maintaining standards, Darling-Hammond said.
Although new tests, if approved, are years away, other changes — like accepting coursework or university degrees instead — could come sooner, commission officials said.
Substitute teacher Sandra Veit Gagain, of Roseville, said the credentialing commission should be careful not to lower its standards as it attempts to address the state’s acute teacher shortage.
“I know they need to have more teachers, but we need to hold the standards high, like we do for our students,” she said.
Veit Gagain returned to school a little over a decade ago to start a second career as a teacher. She passed all her credentialing tests the first time. “I struggled a little,” she said. “I hadn’t looked at math for a long time. It was challenging, but it was something I needed (in the classroom).”
She works part-time as a substitute because of caretaking responsibilities at home, but Veit Gagain said she plans to return to the classroom as a full-time teacher next year.
Stephanie Biagetti, chair of the teacher credentialing program at Sacramento State, doesn’t believe the tests are too difficult or too numerous. Students who do not pass all the required tests by the time they are due to start student teaching typically add a semester of field experience, which entails observing or assisting teachers in their classrooms, and take that time to study for the test, she said.
Wilson is excited to hear that the credentialing commission is considering alternatives to the CSET. She would like the commission to consider allowing students who failed the test multiple times to take a class instead to prove competency.
“It was definitely a big financial burden,” Wilson said of the testing. She said she has spent about $1,000 on the tests — $500 for just the math and science test.
Despite the cost, Wilson said she will not give up. “It’s not a matter of if I pass, it’s when,” she said.
If she can’t pass the test before the spring deadline, Wilson said she plans to work as a substitute teacher next school year, or return to her paraeducator position and then try to re-enroll in the teacher preparation program at the Sacramento County Office of Education at a later date.
“If it could happen before February that would be great,” she said.