New York to scrap literacy test for teachers. Guess why.

Efforts to introduce standardized testing and the monitoring of performance metrics for teachers in New York have been opposed by the teachers unions ever since they were first introduced decades ago. It’s an ongoing battle which has been mirrored across the nation. Still, some measures have been put in place which were intended to at least ascertain basic levels of proficiency for people seeking teaching positions. One of these is known as the Academic Skills Literacy Test (ASLT). It’s basically a reading comprehension test administered to those who would eventually be giving similar tests to students.

Sounds almost like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? You might think so, but this month it looks like the Empire State will be scrapping the examination because not enough people were passing it and the failure rates were deemed to be too heavily skewed along racial lines. (Associated Press)

New York education officials are poised to scrap a test designed to measure the reading and writing skills of people trying to become teachers, in part because an outsized percentage of black and Hispanic candidates were failing it.

The state Board of Regents on Monday is expected Monday to adopt a task force’s recommendation of eliminating the literacy exam, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test.

Backers of the test say eliminating it could put weak teachers in classrooms. Critics of the examination said it is redundant and a poor predictor of who will succeed as a teacher.

This is not something which just cropped up. A group representing many of these aspiring teachers brought lawsuits in 2015 claiming that both the ASLT and a second exam focusing on liberal arts and sciences were somehow racist in nature. The group was seeking more than $300 million in damages but a federal court eventually dismissed the case. Despite the fact that the courts gave the testing program a thumbs up, it seems that the testing regimen will be scrapped anyway.

You may find yourself wondering how a test which is given to all applicants (and mind you, were talking about the same test being given to everyone) can be discriminatory. That’s actually not as crazy as it might sound in some cases because there have been examples in the past which clearly provided an advantage to some people based at least on their economic background if not directly on their race. Early SAT exams included questions in the English portion such as challenges to complete a phrase like “cup and blank.” The choices which were offered included the “correct” answer of “saucer” as well as other choices like plate, spoon or table. That’s problematic in the modern era because the majority of people in lower to middle class households no longer engage in the tradition of High Tea and don’t actually put cups on saucers.

But that’s not what were dealing with here. The ASLT is, as I mentioned above, a reading comprehension test. Applicants are asked to read a passage of text and then answer questions about it. The sample tests provided include examples such as passages from a speech by John F. Kennedy, the biography of Gertrude Stein or an article about ethanol production. None of these require you to be an expert historian, biographer or energy industry expert. You simply need to read the words in the passage and then answer a question or questions about different aspects of the text. How that works out to be “racist” is a mystery.

The aspiring teachers do seem to have at least one valid complaint however. This test is not free and those seeking positions as teachers are regularly required to pay more than $100 to simply take the exam. That doesn’t sound “illegal” to me, but it’s certainly a fairly stiff barrier for those coming from more economically challenged backgrounds. So perhaps there are some improvements that could be made in the system, but scrapping the test entirely makes the idea of accountability a joke. This isn’t a question of what color your skin is. If you can’t pass a reading comprehension test, should you really be teaching students how to read?