California considers overhauling test of reading instruction for teachers in training

May 23, 2019

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California is considering overhauling a test intended to measure whether prospective teachers are prepared to be effective reading instructors.

That’s because the test, known as the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, or RICA, is outdated, and there is no evidence that it contributes to more effective instruction. On top of that, although would-be teachers can take the test multiple times, it costs nearly $200 each time. That may discourage some from entering the profession at a time when the state is experiencing teacher shortages in several subject areas and in schools with many high-needs students.

A passing score on the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, meant to measure a teacher’s ability to teach reading, is required to get a credential to be an elementary school or special education instructor.

But the test hasn’t been revised since 2009 when it was aligned to the English Language Arts-English Language Development Framework put in place two years earlier to guide instruction in classrooms. Frameworks are blueprints for teachers and schools to use to implement state-adopted content standards in different subject areas.

When a new English Language Arts framework was adopted in 2014 the test was never revised to reflect the changes.

“In failing to align with the current standards and framework, the RICA does not reflect current research and instructional best practices in literacy,” said Mimi Miller, a professor from Chico State University, who is part of a literacy expert group convened by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to offer recommendations on the skills and knowledge prospective teachers need to teach reading and literacy.

There is no evidence that a person who passes the test is better at teaching reading than someone who fails, Miller said.

“We don’t know how many times folks had to take it and how much money was spent to get to the ultimate pass rate and we don’t know how many people we are losing,” said Rigel Spencer Massaro, senior staff attorney for Public Advocates.

About 33 percent of the teacher candidates who took the test between 2012 and 2017 failed the first time, although 91 percent passed the test after multiple attempts, according to the credentialing commission. There are no limits to the number of times the test can be taken, although a teacher candidate must wait 45 days before taking it again.

The failure rates are even higher for African-American and Latino teaching candidates: about 45 percent for first-time test takers. Eighty-six percent of Latinos and 85 percent of African-Americans passed the test after multiple attempts in the six-year time period.

“It’s really disturbing to see these low numbers, particularly when they are candidates of color,” said Rigel Spencer Massaro, senior staff attorney for Public Advocates, a civil rights law firm.

That’s because the test unnecessarily eliminates teachers who would contribute to building a teaching force that matches the diversity of the state, said Spencer Massaro, who spoke during the public comment session at a meeting of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing on April 11. “The state has a long way to go before our teachers reflect the diversity of California’s student population, and we know that all students benefit academically from having diverse teachers,” she said.

Spencer Massaro said she gets no comfort from the increased number of teachers of color who pass the test after multiple attempts. “We don’t know how many times folks had to take it and how much money was spent to get to the ultimate pass rate and we don’t know how many people we are losing,” she said.

Teaching candidates pay a $171 test registration fee each time they take the written examination.

The commission’s “literacy expert group” includes university faculty, staff from the California Department of Education and members of the California Teachers Association.

There are people in the expert group who think there needs to be a way to assess whether teachers are prepared to teach reading, but the majority of the group would like to see the test eliminated, said Michele McConnell, director of the online Masters of Education program at the University of San Diego. She also is a member of the group.

There are other tests required of California teacher candidates that assess their ability to teach reading, she said. Because McConnell doesn’t think legislators will vote to get rid of the test, she’s hoping it will be revised and that lawmakers will approve waivers to allow students to complete approved coursework on reading instruction in place of the test.

Nancy Brynelson, the co-director of the California State University Center for the Advancement of Reading, spoke on behalf of keeping the reading assessment at the April 11 commission meeting, although she acknowledged that aligning it to current state standards is long overdue.

“To rush forward to eliminate an examination in this political climate frankly, I think is ill-advised,” she said. “The option to allow coursework to satisfy these requirements is actually the best option and one we agree with. We do need to be clear what it is that goes into this coursework and how candidates will be prepared. We want to work in collaboration with all the constituents and I understand completely why there would be recommendations to eliminate RICA.”

Brynelson later explained that the political climate she cited was in reference to a recent series of articles on what teachers don’t know about the science of reading. “Bottom line is the articles say teacher prep isn’t doing its job,” she said. “We disagree. We think we are. For the state to eliminate this test out of hand, for a lot of very good reasons, it will invite criticism.”

In order to get their credential, teachers in training must pass at least three and as many as six tests, a struggle for many prospective teachers. About 40 percent give up because they fail to pass the required tests at various steps along the path to getting their credential, according to data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. For prospective math or science teachers, that number climbs to 50 percent.

“I’m almost on the verge of getting a new profession,” said Orange County substitute teacher Stevie Lawrence. “It makes me second guess my choice of being a teacher. It’s been hard.”

The low passage rate on the RICA and other tests is happening against the backdrop of a teacher shortage that is becoming more severe in many communities. The shortages have become especially acute since the 2014-15 school year in areas such as math, science and special education.

The Reading Instruction Competence Assessment consists of 70 multiple choice items, four essay questions and requires test takers to answer questions based on a case study of a student.

A Video Performance Examination is an alternative, although passage rates are considerably lower. Candidates must submit a video demonstrating them instructing an entire class, another showing small-group instruction and a third demonstrating individual instruction.

California could lose another special education teacher if Ryan Locklin doesn’t pass the reading instruction test in the next year. Locklin is a special education teacher at McKenney Intermediate School in Marysville, an hour north of Sacramento. Despite teaching the class for four years and overseeing the work of two teacher’s aides, he is still teaching on an intern credential because he can’t pass the test to earn his full credential.

“The kids are going to lose a great teacher,” Locklin said. “They are going to lose someone who truly cares about them and that test isn’t going to show all the other things I do for them.”

Locklin, 40, has taken the test six times.

“It’s really done a number on my self-confidence,” he said. Now, Locklin said he goes into the classroom questioning how well he is teaching his students. “I talk to people at work and they say I’m doing a great job. The test is really impacting my life.”

So, why is the test so difficult? Locklin and Orange County substitute teacher Stevie Lawrence both said they get tripped up on the multiple-choice section of the test because, they said, the answers are so similar that it’s difficult to determine which one is correct.

“That’s the problem,” Lawrence said. “Maybe if I’m teaching a certain way my best answer is this, but someone will teach it the other way.”

Lawrence, 28, has taken the test nearly every two months for the past year. He’s taken a nine-hour prep class at the cost of $300. He’s always close, scoring between 215 and 219 points of the 220 points required to pass.

“I’m almost on the verge of getting a new profession,” said Lawrence, who would like to teach middle school eventually. “It makes me second guess my choice of being a teacher. It’s been hard.”

McConnell agrees that the language in the multiple-choice section is confusing. She also said the essay questions are scored on writing skill, not content.

The test is more an assessment of a candidate’s test-taking skills than their ability to teach reading she said. Those who don’t get these skills in kindergarten through 12th grade struggle on the test, she said.

She also said the test is too broad, drawn from 22 pages of information outlining what teachers need to know to teach reading.

The commission, while taking no formal action, asked the working group of literacy experts to continue to work on revisions to the state’s Teaching Performance Expectations for reading and literacy and to bring back a draft. Teaching Performance Expectations are state guidelines that spell out the knowledge and skills California teachers are required to have before they earn their credential.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which directs the credentialing process in the state, is looking to reform the entire landscape of tests and assessments that teachers have to take to enter the profession. It has been considering the knowledge and skills teachers need to provide reading instruction and literacy development since October of 2016, when it held a study session focused on the teaching of reading and literacy in the era of the Common Core State Standards.

The commission is looking at its assessments to ensure that there are no unnecessary barriers to individuals earning credentials while balancing its responsibility to ensure that all candidates have the knowledge and skills necessary to be effective teachers, said Teri Clark, director of the Professional Services Division of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Speakers at the April meeting urged the commission to make changes or to eliminate the test soon. Some expressed frustration at the length of time it was taking to make changes.

“Let’s not put this on the back burner anymore,” said Danette Brown of the California Teachers Association. “Let’s move forward.”

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