Judge Rules New York Teacher Exam Did Not Discriminate Against Minorities

Elizabeth A. Harrisaug, New York Times, August 7, 2015

A federal judge on Friday ruled that a new licensing exam for teachers given by New York State did not discriminate against minorities, saying that even though they tended to score poorly, the test evaluated skills necessary to do the job.

The ruling is a departure from earlier decisions by the same judge, Kimba M. Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan, in which she threw out past certification exams. It also symbolizes a significant moment in a long-running tug of war between two policy goals in education: making tests for new teachers more rigorous, and increasing the diversity of the nation’s teaching force.

The exam, the Academic Literacy Skills Test, often called the ALST, was first given in the 2013-14 school year, and is meant to assess a potential teacher’s reading and evidence-based writing skills, and ability to master the Common Core standards for English.

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But some schools of education in New York complained that the literacy skills test was not a true measure of what makes a good teacher, and that many of their black and Hispanic students were failing it. An analysis last year found that 46 percent of Hispanic candidates and 41 percent of black candidates passed the test on the first try, while 64 percent of white candidates did so. Students may retake the exams.

More than 80 percent of the country’s public schoolteachers are white, according to the federal Education Department, and there has been a longstanding push to try to increase diversity among teachers, as minorities now account for more than half of the public school student population.

If an employment test has a disparate racial impact, courts have ruled that officials must prove that it measures skills crucial to the job at hand. Judge Wood had ruled that two earlier exams, both called the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, had not met that standard. About 4,000 people who at some point were denied full teaching jobs in New York City because they had not passed those tests have filed claims seeking compensation as a result of those rulings.

But this time, Judge Wood ruled that the state and Pearson, the testing company that helped devise the exam, had done a proper job of making sure that the “content of the ALST is representative of the content of a New York State public-school teacher’s job.”

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Sandi Jacobs, vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates stringent standards for teachers, said one notable thing about Friday’s decision was that the literacy skills test is considered to be more rigorous than the earlier tests that were thrown out.

“The state was taking a step forward, and the judge said that’s O.K.,” Ms. Jacobs said. “And that’s probably good news all the way around.”

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