Judge Rules New York Teacher Exam Not Racially Biased

Kimba Wood has finally found a teacher exam she likes.

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Judge Kimba Wood has finally found a teacher exam she likes.

NYT (“Judge Rules New York Teacher Exam Did Not Discriminate Against Minorities“):

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.

[…]

Ken Wagner, a former New York State deputy commissioner of education who is now Rhode Island’s education commissioner, said in a court brief last month that the new tests were developed “with the need to address the achievement gap in mind and in recognition of the state’s responsibility to ensure that each newly certified teacher entered the classroom with certain minimum knowledge, skills and abilities.”

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.”

[…]

Alfred S. Posamentier, until recently the dean of Mercy College School of Education, said he did not consider the test to be a strong indicator of who would be a good teacher, and that his Hispanic faculty members in particular said they found the test to be discriminatory. Students at Mercy passed the test at a lower rate than their counterparts statewide.

Mr. Posamentier said that while it was important to be a clear, literate communicator, “the ALST measures how eloquent a person is in the English language.”

“The question is, is that one of the criterion for determining who will be a good teacher?” he said. “My sense is that the answer is no.”

The legal standard here—that if a hurdle to a job has racially disparate impact, the employer must demonstrate its relevance to said job—is reasonable. In the case of teacher exams—or, indeed, examinations period—it’s an exceedingly difficult burden to meet.

Still, Posamentier’s position here is hard to defend. Surely, facility with the English language is in fact a crucial skill for a teacher in the United States. While it’s hardly a sufficient competency, it’s a necessary one. The curriculum is written and delivered in English. Further, even math, science, fine arts, or physical education teachers ought model standard American English for their students.

Contrariwise, if native Spanish speakers who are nonetheless highly proficient in reading and speaking standard American English are failing the exam because they’re a little slower in deciphering and thinking through the questions and are therefore running out of time, I’d agree that the test is highly flawed. Teachers, after all, have plenty of time to digest their course materials ahead of the lesson. But Posamentier doesn’t seem to be making that argument.

Now, it may nonetheless be that the exam in question does a poor job of weeding out teachers who are likely to be ineffective in the classroom or needlessly bars teachers who would be highly effective from getting that chance. The state managed to persuade a hostile judge—one who’s tossed out previous iterations of the exam—otherwise.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    In the absence of a consensus of opinion or trackable metrics on what makes a good teacher it’s going to be darned hard to come up with a test that actually results in screening out those who won’t make good teachers from those who will but, presumably, that isn’t the yardstick that Judge Wood is using.

    Is education the only field in which human experimentation is considered ethical?

  2. Tony W says:

    @Dave Schuler: We do like to measure data! It makes us feel like we are taking rational, rather than random, actions. A lack of tough decisions looks like a leadership team that is phoning it in, so we find things to measure and we take action.

    MBA schools teach our senior leaders that they must incessantly survey stakeholders and create metrics, then reward/punish based on the results, however there seems to be a very weak understanding of statistical theory – aligning those metrics to good business outcomes – never mind an understanding of associative (vs causal) relationships.

    What’s the old saying – not everything that counts can be measured and not everything that can be measured counts (or something like that).

  3. Tyrell says:

    There has to be some way to make sure that a person wanting to be a teacher has the knowledge in that field. The bureaucracy calls that “highly qualified”. As far as teaching ability, that is far more subjective. Teachers are continuously upgrading their skills and teaching methods. But teachers are called on to do far more than teach math and parts of speech. They must also learn how to direct traffic, help serve breakfast, refill the paper towel dispenser, operate a floor polisher, give medication (including injections), sell tickets, order supplies through the government contract purchasing maze, have a high degree of technical knowledge (smart boards), set security alarms after the dance or ballgame is over, and umpire sports.
    A few years ago some misguided judge tried to order some teachers to take some foreign language class during the summer so that they could better communicate with students’ parents who could not communicate in English. Then the judge was told that he could not order teachers to do that since they were not paid in the summer.
    I think that school administrators, judges, and politicians should have to spend two weeks a year in a real classroom working with students and doing everything a real teacher does, from lunch duty to cleaning the stands after a game. Then they would change their thinking.

  4. DrDaveT says:

    Contrariwise, if native Spanish speakers who are nonetheless highly proficient in reading and speaking standard American English are failing the exam because they’re a little slower in deciphering and thinking through the questions and are therefore running out of time, I’d agree that the test is highly flawed.

    Thanks for making that point, James. We argued about this last time around, but I think your analysis of this one is reasonable. The ability to model standard English and communicate in it at a level appropriate to the subject is the key. Given that teachers of all subjects must pass the same test, it’s not reasonable to apply the relevant minimum standard for teaching English Lit to people who are going to be teaching Geometry or Phys Ed (or kindergarten).

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I will renew my eternal objection to standardized tests as being little more than disguised IQ tests.

    But, moving past that, what is our goal here? Is it not to have teachers who can effectively warehouse our children while communicating just enough educational material that we can pretend we have an educational system rather than a vast extended daycare?

    Is it not likely, given the racial make-up of many public schools, that issues which one tends to think of as extraneous – race and gender, for example – may be quite important? Isn’t the ability to connect with kids of some importance? Isn’t a connection somewhat more likely to exist between a class that is 80% black and a black teacher? Given that class, what gives us a better result: a well-versed white teacher or a slightly less well-versed black teacher?

  6. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    As someone that speaks English as a second language, I can say that writing in a second language it´s very difficult. Sometimes I write in English using the Romance language structure, sometimes I use expressions that make no sense in English. An Academic that speaks English as a second language can fail a test aimed at people that speaks English as a First Language.

    Having Bilingual teachers can be a much better target than having Teachers that can pass a language test for Native Speakers.

  7. DrDaveT says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Sometimes I write in English using the Romance language structure, sometimes I use expressions that make no sense in English.

    Completely off-topic, but that remark just begs for this reference.

    Having Bilingual teachers can be a much better target than having Teachers that can pass a language test for Native Speakers.

    You have no idea the firestorm you would kick off in the US by recognizing that teachers who speak both Standard English and African-American Vernacular English* are bilingual.

    *AKA Black English, or the extremely unfortunate coinage “Ebonics”. John McWhorter (who is both black and a real linguist) has the best discussion(s) of it that I’ve yet found.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Off-topic, are you familiar with English As She Is Spoke? Mark Twain considered it one of the most perfect works ever written and, as fate would have it, it’s a Portuguese-English phrase book.

    I continue to be impressed with your command of English. You obviously had much better training than would have been provided by English As She Is Spoke and your English is infinitely better than my nonexistent Portuguese.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    @DrDaveT:

    We wrote almost simultaneously.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    @DrDaveT:

    In support of the meat of your comment, Standard Black English, as it was called when I was a student 50 years ago, is a legitimate dialect of English. It is a social fact that native speakers of SBE must be fluent in Standard American English if they are to prosper in the larger society.

    That’s probably more true now than it was when I was a student. An issue too rarely acknowledged is that speakers of widely divergent dialects of the same language may well be less able to understand one another. So, for example, speakers of Indian English, almost certainly the most commonly spoken dialect of English, in all likelihood understand SAE better than they do SBE.

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tyrell:

    They must also learn how to direct traffic, help serve breakfast, refill the paper towel dispenser, operate a floor polisher, give medication (including injections), sell tickets, order supplies through the government contract purchasing maze, have a high degree of technical knowledge (smart boards), set security alarms after the dance or ballgame is over, and umpire sports.

    Ya know, Tyrell, I just retired after being a teacher for 23 years, and in all the time I was teaching, I never was asked to do a single one of those tasks as part of my teaching duties (I warned you about staying away from those donuts). I suspect that there are some very small school districts where sometimes teachers have to pick up some slack, but I have taught at places where the high school had 25 total students and we still had classified staff to do those things.

    As to administrators needing to teach two weeks per year so that they understand the job, where I’m from every administrator that I have ever met has at least 10 years of classroom experience from the State Superintendent of Instruction on down. If they don’t know what the job is like after 10 years, call me skeptical about the value of adding 2 more weeks a year.

    @Dave Schuler: I’ve had this conversation more times than I care to recall. Talking with the house cat about it seems to have yielded the most fruitful and positive discussion.

  12. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But, moving past that, what is our goal here? Is it not to have teachers who can effectively warehouse our children while communicating just enough educational material that we can pretend we have an educational system rather than a vast extended daycare?

    I really wish you would stop doing this. I don’t disagree, mind you, it’s just so depressing to be reminded of what so much of my job has been.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W: I would expect that we can take the teacher’s scores on this test, and the students’ scores on countless standardized tests, and come up with a measurement of whether doing well on this test actually does signal that teachers will be more successful.

  14. DrDaveT says:

    Speaking of “offensive to women”, I would think that the chosen photo art for this article is offensive to both women and teachers. Articles about the military on this site do not feature cover art of either Rambo or Bill Murray in Stripes; this seems like the education equivalent.

    Yeah, it’s a minor thing — but the subliminal message that it’s ok (and mainstream) to feel no respect for teachers leaves a bad taste. Surely that’s part of why it’s so hard to get good teachers, no?

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I never mean it as a knock on teachers. I see them as being as trapped in the system as the kids. Nor do I happen to have a brilliant plan for what else we could do with kids aged 5 to 18. I just think the whole experience could be made less soul-crushing and more useful for both teacher and student. The amount of data actually transferred from teacher to student is just absurdly low.

    It was driven home to me with added force by the fact that my son attended essentially none of his computer science classes and did none of the assignments and then scored a 5 (highest possible) on the AP exam in computer science. The only thing he really cares about ended up being entirely self-taught.

    On the other hand he does think he learned a few things in his other STEM classes, so I’m willing to concede that school is of use to STEM folk, though again, everything he actually learned over the course of 12 years he could have been easily picked up in a motivated two weeks.

    As for me, I can’t name a single useful thing I learned in school after the multiplication tables. I was never bullied or wildly unhappy in school, but to this day when I do a school visit I dread the locker-lined hallways. My spirit is oppressed. When I stand there in front of an auditorium full of middle school or high school kids I still have to suppress the urge to yell, “Let’s run for it!”

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It was driven home to me with added force by the fact that my son attended essentially none of his computer science classes and did none of the assignments and then scored a 5 (highest possible) on the AP exam in computer science. The only thing he really cares about ended up being entirely self-taught.

    Without detracting from your larger point, I’ll note that this has been true in computer science since I was teaching myself to program back in the ’70s. I put myself through college writing software at a national lab, and worked for six years mid-career in a job that was about 50% coding, with very little formal computer science education.

    On the other hand he does think he learned a few things in his other STEM classes, so I’m willing to concede that school is of use to STEM folk

    Indeed. It’s almost to the point where the converse is true — STEM folk are the ones who learned something in school. The humanities side of my education (other than foreign language) came at home; the math I got at school.

    Oh, and the performing arts side — the one that had me seriously thinking about a music major in college? That was also incredibly enhanced by my public school education. Too bad we can’t afford that stuff any more…

  17. Argon says:

    A Japanese post-doc working in my dad’s lab once asked what area he should improve upon to do better in his acidification career. My dad told him to learn to speak English well, noting that the post-doc was very difficult to understand. The post-doc felt somewhat insulted but my dad replied, ‘Tough sh*t, don’t expect the world to bend to your shortcomings. ‘

    We’re really doing no one a favor by graduating prospective teachers of which about 40-60% can’t pass a qualifying exam: Not the teachers and not the students they would teach.

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Argon:

    We’re really doing no one a favor by graduating prospective teachers of which about 40-60% can’t pass a qualifying exam

    Surely that depends on the qualifying exam, no? The previous exam, that judge Wood rejected, featured questions that my ivy-league-lawyer wife couldn’t figure out which of the multiple-choice answers they were looking for. If you think that my wife’s grasp of English isn’t adequate to teach in a NY school, you’ve taken entirely the wrong lesson from this.

    Nobody objects to having minimum standards for teachers. Sensible people object to standards that are unrelated to good teaching, random, poorly-tested, or all of the above.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: I might be a special snowflake, but I actually learned things in school, often in topics I wasn’t interested in at the time, but have found interesting 20 years later. History, art, social sciences, literature… All of that I needed to have drilled into me at a young age so when I did get interested, I had enough of a basis to learn more about it rather than flailing about.

    The stuff that interested me at the time I mostly learned on my own faster than whatever class I was in was going.

  20. Tyrell says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Last high school soccer season, teachers were selling tickets, selling hot dogs, and cleaned up the stands after the games. I know a few teachers over the years who were hired because they also happened to have a bus license. Most teachers around here do not get a duty free lunch period. Many do not get a planning time until after school or at home. Because students now have to be supervised every second, teachers have bus duty, traffic duty, hall duty, breakfast duty, lunch duty. I would say half the teachers ‘ time is non instructional.

  21. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: I know that you’re not knocking on teachers. Moreover, I have some of the same reactions that you do to the school experience–and I liked school, did well, and mostly enjoyed teaching and will miss doing it. I also endorse your comment from the previous post about ability to connect with students being of principal importance. So many of the bad situations that I’ve seen over the years revolved around the community, administrators, teachers, and students seemingly agreeing that they wanted to operate the system as an adversarial dystopia. So sad and so pointless.

    @DrDaveT: Again, I agree, and note that part of the reasons that we’ve gone to the sorts of measurements that we have is because identifying “good teachers” is painfully difficult and results may vary from school to school and student cohort to student cohort. A case in point, the brilliant and talented advanced mathematics teacher that I shared and office with at a community college I taught at related a story about how he failed miserably with remedial classes when he had been teaching high school.

  22. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Dave Schuler: Thanks, I did not know about this book. These jokes with idiomatic expressions are very common among Brazilians that reads in English, but I did not know about these books. Sometimes I inadvertently use some expression that does not exist in English, but that´s an accident. .-)

    Learning and using a second language is complicated. Even someone that´s writes pretty well in a Second Language will be a even better writer in his First Language.

    I respect people that have English as a first Language that manages to learn Portuguese. It´s a very difficult language(Like ALL Romance Languages). There dozens of dialects and accents(Maybe more than in Spanish). Vernacular written Portuguese is different from Spoken Portuguese;

    Learning English is much easier. 😉

  23. michael reynolds says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I mentally exempted drama because I think a lot of actors/directors started out that way. Of course it’s hands-on, so inherently different than a lecture class on transcendentalist literature.

    School visits really impressed on me the damage done to kids’ imaginations. When I visit elementary schools the kids have these ferociously active imaginations, by middle school that’s seriously inhibited and in high school it’s largely gone. I don’t think that’s all on schools, but it’s depressing to see it. If you’re going into any kind of art imagination is the one thing you can’t do without.

    I try to recall why school didn’t engage me and it comes down to my conviction that it was irrelevant. I didn’t find it awful or painful just dull and pointless. And it turned out I was right, for me, none of it ever did matter. Had they found a way to figure me out as an individual rather than treating me as an average male human age 16, a connection might have been made. I think we actually have the technology now to customize education and make it more responsive to individuals.

    @Gustopher:

    Do you look back, weigh up what you took from school and think, “Yeah, totally worth 12 years?” Or do you think, “I could have learned all that in a month and spent the rest of the time watching daytimeTV”

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I can believe you’d enjoy teaching. As much of a misanthrope as I am I kind of like teenagers. They’re so clueless and opinionated and every now and then they actually make me rethink something. And I have specific affection for this generation. I like these kids. They’re better people than we were.

  24. Dave Schuler says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Learning English is much easier.

    Learning to speak English is pretty easy. Learning to write English is difficult and you do it very well.

  25. Tony W says:

    @Gustopher: What, then, is the goal of education? Should our schools crank out little FTEs for our corporate overlords? What of personal fulfillment? Liberal arts, literature, spelling, linguistics, cultural understanding, STEM, etc.?

    I think everyone brings a different answer to the question of purpose. My son did terribly in school where all of his role models went to college and saw that as the only path to real success. Since then he’s done extremely well as an NCO in the US Army – but in HS he felt like a failure because his teachers and school leadership measured things that were not meaningful to his definition of success.

    Sitting quietly and doing your work builds nice, compliant office workers, but does little to help the tradesman or soldier prepare for the job market.

  26. Tyrell says:

    @DrDaveT: I remember the ebonics fiasco that took place out in California (see Oakland ebonics controversy). It was some failed attempt to improve language and reading skills in the disastrous Oakland school systems of the ’90’s and was viewed as more dumbing down of education, which was the last thing minorities needed, who were already getting an inferior education in the schools there.
    When ebonics is brought up, I always think of the “Airplane” movies scenes, in which people are speaking “jive”. Absolutely hilarious ! As were all the “Airplane” movies.

  27. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    When I visit elementary schools the kids have these ferociously active imaginations, by middle school that’s seriously inhibited and in high school it’s largely gone.

    Yeah. My wife and I have been working with Odyssey of the Mind for about 20 years, in an effort to undo some of that. Even within that program, though, you can see it. The primary school kids have crazy great ideas (“How about a shadow-making machine that you turn the crank and your shadow comes out and you can attach it so that it’s there when the sun comes out…”), but no performance or stagecraft or engineering skills. The high school kids have much better skills, but much less creativity. (The middle school kids are either the best of both worlds, or non-stop toilet jokes. Flip a coin.)

    I think we actually have the technology now to customize education and make it more responsive to individuals.

    I love what Khan Academy is doing is some school systems — “flipping the classroom” so that the kids get the lecture stuff through 8-12 minute videos online that they can pause and repeat, then spend the time in class doing homework while the teacher circulates and gives 1-on-1 help as needed. Plus, the teacher can track which videos the kids have watched how often, how long they spend on various skills, where the gaps are, etc.

  28. DrDaveT says:

    @Tyrell:

    I remember the ebonics fiasco that took place out in California

    I doubt that. I suspect that you remember that there was a ruckus about Ebonics in Oakland, and that lots of people were ridiculing the school system. If you want to know the facts, I strongly suggest reading John McWhorter’s various comments on the situation.

    Short version:
    1. Ebonics (whatever you call it) really is a separate, parallel dialect of English that has been around a very long time. It has just as much grammar as Standard English; it’s just a different grammar. It is not — emphatically — a failed attempt to speak Standard English.
    2. The difference between Standard English and Ebonics is not why Oakland school children fail to learn as well as kids in Berkeley or San Jose.

  29. Blue Galangal says:

    One of the primary benefits of school qua school is to provide a structure for learning (and, possibly, a syntax). Although a crazy amount of my own learning is self directed*, the value a history teacher, for instance and understanding this to be in the ideal case, can bring to a subject is context and structure… and syllabus. One of my professors once sent out her working syllabus by accident, which contained an annotated syllabus for all the books and readings she had compiled over the years for that course. It will take me probably five years to work through these readings. While I could compile similar readings, her expertise and knowledge make that syllabus very valuable, while actually taking the course from her provided structure and context.

    But this is an advanced benefit; a lot of students in primary and middle school aren’t going to understand the context and structure being provided, and many kids might do just as well with a really good grasp of reading, a library card, and loads of time to read fun and interesting books.

    *I’m certain I’m not the only one who added those WWI books to my Amazon wish list and shopping cart from the sidebar discussion on one of these articles last week. I’d read Tuchman but that was about it in terms of WWI.

  30. just me says:

    My son’s French teacher is a native of Quebec and English is her second language. At times it’s clear she is working the English out in her head before speaking but she is an excellent teacher, my son adores her and she passed the NH teaching test fir licensing the first time.

    I would rather have teachers fail the test and have less diversity than end up with poorly qualified teachers in the name of diversity. Perhaps the answer isn’t in the tests but in how teachers are trained and accepted into teaching programs.

  31. Ha Nguyen says:

    DrDaveT says:
    Monday, August 10, 2015 at 10:16
    @michael reynolds:
    When I visit elementary schools the kids have these ferociously active imaginations, by middle school that’s seriously inhibited and in high school it’s largely gone.
    Yeah. My wife and I have been working with Odyssey of the Mind for about 20 years, in an effort to undo some of that. Even within that program, though, you can see it. The primary school kids have crazy great ideas (“How about a shadow-making machine that you turn the crank and your shadow comes out and you can attach it so that it’s there when the sun comes out…”), but no performance or stagecraft or engineering skills. The high school kids have much better skills, but much less creativity. (The middle school kids are either the best of both worlds, or non-stop toilet jokes. Flip a coin.)

    I think you’re seeing the process whereby imagination meets the real world. I used to believe we could colonize other planets until I took Thermodynamics and realized that with our current set of fuel capabilities this is totally not do-able. As a kid you can come up with “Magic happens!” then “Profit!” in your systems. Real-life engineering doesn’t work that way.

    I was also just talking to a software engineer who was totally pie in the sky. He thought there was a market for an airplane which could be totally controlled by software. That is, we could get rid of pilots entirely. He didn’t think of malicious viruses, blue screen of death, or unintended bugs.