California moves closer to eliminating, replacing reading instruction test that has blocked thousands from teaching credential

January 23, 2020

Sarah La Due, an English teacher at Korematsu Middle School, works one-on-one with a student during silent reading time in her 7th-grade English class.

The California reading instruction test is a major hurdle for many aspiring teachers across the state. 

So much so that about one-third who take the test fail the first time, according to state data of the five-year period between 2012 and 2017. The poor performance is prompting action by the state: The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is assembling a panel to recommend alternatives to the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, or RICA, while state legislators are considering a bill that would replace it. 

The test, which is generally taken after a teacher candidate has completed a bachelor’s degree and is enrolled in a teacher preparation program, must be passed before they can earn a credential to teach elementary school and special education.

“In the 18 months I have been on this commission I don’t think I’ve heard a kind word about this RICA test,” Commissioner Kathleen Allavie said. “This test is not serving us well at this time. This is the most important thing I think we need our teachers to do — teaching students to read.” 

Critics say the test is outdated and racially biased while supporters of the current version argue it ensures prospective teachers understand how to teach reading based on phonics.

The RICA is just one of the up to six tests teachers in training must pass to earn a credential. About 40 percent give up because they fail to pass one or more of the required tests at various steps 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.

The high failure rate on the tests makes it difficult for the state to make a dent in its persistent teacher shortage. Some 24,000 new teachers were needed in California classrooms in the 2017-18 school year, according to the Learning Policy Institute report written as part of the Getting Down to Facts research initiative. But only about 16,000 received teaching credentials.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing is looking to reform all the tests and assessments that teachers have to take to enter the profession. The effort is meant to update the tests to reflect current state academic standards, as well as to ease the teacher shortage by reducing obstacles to earning a credential.

“All assessments are reviewed periodically to ensure that they remain valid and reliable,” said Sasha Horwitz, commission spokesman. “As new standards are adopted by the State Board of Education, the assessments that teacher candidates are required to pass are updated. With the changes over the past 10 years, beginning with Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards, inclusion of the focus on the whole child, as only a few examples, it is prudent to review how prospective teachers are assessed to ensure that all new teachers have the knowledge and skills required to be effective.”

At the same time, the commission is considering updates to the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, state legislators are considering Senate Bill 614. If passed, it would eliminate the test and replace it with a basic writing skills test on an exam these teachers are already required to pass — the California Subject Examinations for Teachers: Multiple Subjects.

The commission has not taken a formal position on the bill, Horwitz said. 

Plans to change or eliminate the RICA have ignited a debate over what a new exam or replacement coursework would assess and whether it will be adequate to ensure all California teachers are prepared to teach children to read and to assess, assimilate and analyze information. 

Tobie Meyer, state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA, a grassroots organization started to raise awareness about dyslexia and education, said the problem lies with teacher preparation programs that don’t prepare teachers to adequately teach reading and literacy. 

“The CTC should be addressing why new teachers are having a difficult time in passing the RICA, not lowering our expectations for teachers by eliminating the RICA or minimizing the important focus on these foundational reading skills,” she wrote in a letter to the credentialing commission. “Lowering the bar to make passing rates higher only masks the underlying problem.”

Alonzo Collins has spent more than six years teaching English in China, Switzerland and France because he can’t pass all the tests required to earn a California teaching credential, including the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment. 

He says he is a popular teacher, sought out by families looking for a tutor to teach their children English in preparation for attendance at an international university. 

Collins, 52, would just like to be rid of the RICA. He failed it twice, despite finishing his teacher preparation and earning a master’s degree in education, before packing up and moving to China in 2013. He accepted a job as an English teacher overseas in order to earn money to pay off his school loans, he said.

Collins had quit a career in marketing to return to school to become a teacher. He graduated from Antioch University in Los Angeles in 2010. 

Despite his current schedule that includes teaching English to students on both sides of the Switzerland-France border, Collins recently took the RICA again at a testing center in Paris. He failed again.

Collins has decided to give up on the test.

“I have spent money on books, online tutors and, of course, college tuition that I need to pay back,” said Collins by phone from his home in Geneva. “As of today, I have nothing to show for it. It is really sad and hurtful to have people, who have a desire to become teachers, take a test like this.”

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “I love school and I loved learning.”

After hearing that the RICA is likely to be revised or replaced with coursework, Collins said he would be willing to try to pass it again. It would help him avoid taking a year of classes to earn a credential in the state of Washington, where he plans to move this year and where a California credential is transferable. 

The RICA 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.

Although would-be teachers can take the test multiple times, each attempt costs about $200. 

Alesia Fuller, 56, has completed a special education teaching credential program and holds a child development program director permit and a 30-day substitute teaching permit from the state of California. She is working as a substitute teacher in Riverside County schools. Substitutes are required to have a bachelor’s degree, pass a basic skills test and complete a background check.

But Fuller can’t earn her teaching credential because she can’t pass one last test — the RICA. Fuller took the written test first and failed, then tried the video performance assessment twice, failing again. She can’t understand what she is doing wrong and complains the testing company offers little feedback to help her improve.

“How can I have failed this and have been an educator for 20 years?” she asked. 

Fuller said teachers who fail the test are generally just bad test takers, not bad teachers. She hopes the credentialing commission and state legislators will consider replacing the test with coursework. 

The credentialing commission discussed three options for replacing the RICA proposed by its staff at the November meeting. The first is an assessment aligned with the state’s English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework that would vary depending on whether the individual was trying to earn a multiple subject or special education credential. 

Single-subject credential candidates are not currently required to pass the RICA, but the board could opt to include them in the testing requirement, according to the proposal. Staff also proposed allowing candidates who do not pass one or more parts of the test to complete approved courses instead of retaking the test.

The second option, and the one that garnered the most support at the meeting, was to replace the test with coursework that includes assignments and exercises that can be used to assess students’ knowledge of reading instruction and literacy.

The third option would be to include questions that assess reading and literacy in the Teaching Performance Assessments, which all teaching candidates seeking multiple subject and single subject credentials must pass. 

The commission asked its staff to assemble a working group of experts to study the test and to offer recommendations about its elimination or replacement. 

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