Putting basic skills first in Illinois

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Illinois has a problem. In order to qualify for student teaching, teacher candidates who score below a certain level on the ACT or SAT (22/1030) must pass the state's basic skills test known as the TAP. Introduced in 2010, this exam requires candidates to demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, language arts and math. 

The problem in Illinois is that teacher candidates -- disproportionately, minority candidates -- are having difficulty passing the test. In 2013, even after multiple attempts, fewer than 18 percent of African-American and Latino candidates passed, compared to over 36 percent of white candidates. 

Originally, candidates had to pass the TAP before they could be admitted to a preparation program, but that requirement was discarded after the first year when it looked like programs would be gutted of enrollments. Now, Illinois has made yet another modification on what was intended to be a get-tough policy when introduced two years ago, uncapping the number of chances teacher candidates have to pass the test. Instead of being limited to five attempts, candidates may now take the test as many times as they like. 

Sound like a magnanimous move?  In our view, it's anything but.  

Candidates will be admitted into programs which cannot provide any reasonable assurance that these aspiring teachers will be able to earn licensure. Additionally, it leaves teacher preparation programs on the hook for teaching basic skills that should have been acquired well before candidates entered the program, indeed even college.

This chart, from NCTQ's 2013 Yearbook, shows that Illinois is one of only 14 states with a basic skills test that need not be passed before entry to a teacher preparation program. 

When do states test teacher candidates' academic proficiency? 

Promoting diversity is an important issue, as research has found that minority students perform better academically when assigned to a teacher of the same background and that increases in minority teachers can even have the effect of lowering teen pregnancy rates. But higher ed is just as much in danger as K-12 ever was of the soft bigotry of low expectations. In the 2013 Teacher Prep Review, we identified 54 universities with at least one program that not only drew in highly capable candidates, but also those who would add to the diversity of the teacher workforce -- doing both should be the goal of every program.

Potential teachers from all backgrounds are turning away from the profession because there is more money to be earned in other fields. For those who aren't deterred by the pay, it may be the low status of an education major with coursework that aims too low that is driving away both talented minorities and talented white students. Talented students, just like talented teachers, want to be surrounded with the best and brightest, not those just hanging on.