Students of color seldom see teachers who look like them. This is in large part because many aspiring teachers of color are pushed out of the profession before they have a chance to start. It's not poor performance in college courses or teaching internships that take the biggest toll. It is the standardized tests aspiring teachers must pass to become a teacher. These exams are designed to function as a gatekeeper of teacher quality, but important issues suggest it's time to rethink their role in the profession.
A recent report estimates that each year, the exams screen out approximately 8,600 of 16,900 aspiring teachers of color. That exclusion rate is 27.5 percent higher than for white aspiring teachers. It is not a new phenomenon, either. This trend has been documented on "professional readiness exams" for nearly a decade and originated in the 1960s when states began adopting such exams as regular practice. Their function over time is one reason why teachers of color make up only 18 percent of the teaching profession when students of color make up over half of the U.S. school population.
For my book, Navigating Teacher Licensure Exams , I explored what it's like for aspiring teachers of color to take these exams. In one chapter, I focus on test takers who failed their licensure exam multiple times before eventually passing and becoming teachers. I found they passed by learning time-saving test-taking strategies, taking the exam in situations in settings where they felt least stressed, and by cutting themselves off from negative messages about the exam. They also concentrated on a narrow slice of material that they did not know well. In all, what it took to pass the exam resembled little of what makes a powerful teacher today.
It's important to ask more broadly if these exams tell us who will be an effective teacher. This is like asking if a person's 40-yard dash time tells us if they will make a good football player. Sprinting is part of the sport, but so is throwing, catching, and tackling. And the importance of each action depends on the position a person plays.
A similar point applies to teaching. Effective teachers know the content they teach. But they also know how to build healthy relationships with students, work effectively under constraints, leverage community assets, and create learning experiences connected to students' realities.
The research shows these exams are a murky indicator of how effective an aspiring teacher will be. The exams tend to screen people out of the profession who might not be effective math teachers—think of the person so clumsy they can't even finish the 40-yard dash—but the evidence is less clear for reading. More troubling, research has shown that requiring higher scores would keep out substantial numbers of people who would otherwise be effective, and only screen out a fraction of a percent of those who would be ineffective.
What's more, research in this area is based on linking teachers' licensure exams scores with students' standardized test scores in reading and math—a narrow gauge of the learning that happens in schools.
There are more alarming problems with the exams when it comes to racial diversity. First, research also shows the accuracy of these exams can change depending on the race and gender of the test taker and the kinds of questions asked. For example, on some exams, multiple-choice questions seem to be better predictors of teacher quality for white women teachers. Conversely, essay questions appear better for African-American teachers.
Research shows that other factors can easily make up for a weakness that a licensure exam signals. For instance, racial match matters for students of color. Having a black teacher—despite that teacher's poor performance on a licensure exam—can make an equivalent impact on reading and math scores as having a white teacher who performed well on the exam.
Why do state systems of education lean so confidently on these exams when such evidence should give pause? A deep and abiding addiction to them.
When modern standardized tests developed in the 1920s, they were a brand new technology with much allure. They promised to sort large groups of people into neat categories so the military, immigration system, and schools could make easy decisions. They gave the broader public a false sense of security, that somehow the exams were measuring a kind of innate intelligence. This line of thinking and use of exams, however, can be traced to the eugenics movement, a racist pseudoscience that sorts humans into crude subgroups. With such a history, perhaps we should not be surprised that licensure exams restrict the racial diversity of the profession.
A growing number of colleges have broken the broader addiction to standardized tests by no longer requiring them for college admission. Similarly, it is time for states to rethink how they admit teachers to the profession. For instance, states could consider a range of materials that give a more comprehensive view of a prospective teacher's abilities rather than letting a single licensure exam score trump everything. Performance assessments in context and community-based evaluations are natural starting points here. Each of these practices would support a more racially diverse teaching profession without sacrificing teacher quality.
Critics may say that moving away from these exams would dumb down the profession. But the future young people need will not be ushered into existence by teachers who bubble in the right circles or write essays in a two-hour window of time. It will be created by teachers who can solve problems collaboratively with other educators in the midst of constraints that would isolate them. It will be created by teachers who can design learning experiences that help students create solutions to real-world problems that impact their lives. Well-funded schools with healthy working conditions will enable this work.
Teachers of color will help lead the way toward these changes. They should not be tested out of the profession before they get this chance.
A former high school English teacher, Emery Petchauer is an associate professor in the College of Education and College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. He is the author or editor of four books, including Navigating Teacher Licensure Exams (Routledge, 2019).