California gets high grade in measuring teachers’ reading instruction skills

August 15, 2018

California is one of 11 states that “thoroughly tests candidates’ knowledge of the science of reading,” according to a new 50-state analysis released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). The report seemingly undercuts a lawsuit that a public interest law firm has filed against the state and top education officials for failing to effectively teach reading.

But Linda Darling-Hammond, the chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which oversees requirements and assessments for new teachers, said that the state’s two-decade-old Reading Instruction Competence Assessment that the analysis cited is long outdated, and she downplayed the test’s importance.

 “I don’t take issue that it’s probably useful” to test teacher candidates’ reading knowledge, but the state’s test “is not as predictive or as big a deal” as the report would indicate, she said. “If it were, California would have been knocking the socks off reading the last 20 years.”

For the past two decades, California 4th- and 8th-grade students have ranked near the bottom among states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, although 8th-graders did show significant progress last year, rising to 37th in state rankings. Fourth-graders ranked 44th.

Last month, a judge in Superior Court in Los Angeles ruled that the public interest law firm Public Counsel and the firm of Morrison & Foerster could go to trial with their lawsuit claiming that state officials, including the State Board of Education and the California Department of Education, haven’t been teaching the state’s least advantaged children well enough to be proficient in reading and writing. Ella T. v. California was filed on behalf of 10 children in three elementary schools — in Los Angeles, Stockton and a charter school in Inglewood — with abysmal reading scores on state standardized tests and other assessments. Among their demands, plaintiffs want the courts to order that teachers be trained in a research-based reading curriculum and in instruction for struggling students, as well as be given adequate classroom resources.

From the NCTQ’s perspective, California’s teachers are at least starting off with the right training. While all states, the report said, “continue to struggle to persuade” some teacher preparation programs to include proven reading methods, it said only 11 states require a “sufficient reading test” for both elementary and special education teachers. California’s assessment “is one of the leading reading tests in the nation and thoroughly tests candidates’ knowledge of the science of reading,” the report said.

The organization also praised California’s standards behind the test for incorporating literacy in other subject areas, including science and social studies, as well as the requirement that new teachers demonstrate an ability to plan effective interventions for struggling readers.

But the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, which was adopted in 1998, hasn’t been revised yet to include the Common Core standards in reading and writing or the new English language development standards for English learners, Darling-Hammond said. While strong in measuring knowledge of phonics and decoding — translating letters and words into language — it’s missing other key elements of reading instruction, she said.

Under another credential requirement, California’s Teaching Performance Assessment, all aspiring teachers must demonstrate how they teach reading in the classroom, she said. “Tests can be useful, but research shows the quality of course work is more important than a test as a predictor of success.”

What’s alarming, Darling-Hammond said, is that a significant proportion of the state’s new teachers haven’t taken the performance assessment, the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment or teacher preparation courses. Because of a teacher shortage overall in rural areas and in high-cost regions like the Bay Area and in subjects like special education statewide, new teachers are entering the classroom without a teaching credential. In 2016-17, about 10,000 teachers entered with temporary emergency permits or as intern teachers, who must earn their preliminary credential within the first two years in the classroom. Schools serving low-income, minority students — those that the Ella T. lawsuit would cover — are hiring a disproportionate number of underprepared teachers, according to a district survey by the Learning Policy Institute.

Darling-Hammond said that teacher preparation is but one ingredient of successful teaching and school achievement in reading. Other critical factors are good mentoring programs for new teachers, a strong curriculum and instructional materials and time for teacher collaboration, she said.

At the urging of Darling-Hammond and others, Gov. Jerry Brown included $125 million in the current budget to establish teacher “residency” programs that will place teachers in the classroom as teacher assistants while they earn their credentials, reducing the need for emergency permits.

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