California is debating whether to revise or replace the reading instruction test candidates must pass to become credentialed elementary or special education teachers.
The Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, or RICA, seeks to ensure that teacher candidates for the multiple subjects and education specialist credentials are able to deliver a balanced reading curriculum based on ongoing assessment.
But so many credential candidates are struggling to pass this test, it is exacerbating the state’s teacher shortage. Moreover, there is no evidence that this test is improving either the teaching or learning of reading.
Having witnessed the frustration of many talented teacher candidates I’ve helped prepare for this exam, I’m glad the state is looking at revising the RICA. Here is why:
The test attempts to require all elementary school teachers be as competent as a reading specialist without the additional training. Passing requires more specialized knowledge than many credential candidates receive in their teacher preparation classes.
The test also gives too much weight to the case study section. This section, which makes up 20 percent of the score, consists of analyzing a student’s reading assessments and writing an instructional plan. Previously, a case study was done by a reading specialist, but now computer assessments are often used to identify struggling readers. Typically, a classroom teacher would not have the time to write up individual case studies.
It is also too broad. Teaching reading in the primary grades is very different from teaching reading in grades four through eight. Yet the focused educational problems and instructional tasks section (30 percent of the score) are essay questions based on scenarios from kindergarten to grade 8.
The multiple-choice section (50 percent of score) is laden with specialized vocabulary (such as phoneme, grapheme and morpheme) not needed for discussions with students or conferences with parents. Often there are similar answer choices, but test-takers have to choose one.
And on top of that, 10 questions that are indistinguishable from the other 60 questions, are being field-tested to be evaluated for future test administrations and do not count toward the student’s score though they take time and effort away from the rest of the test.
Here are suggestions based on my experience and input from my students for how revise the RICA:
- Drop the 10 questions that are being field-tested. It is unnerving that some multiple-choice questions do not count toward the final score.
- Split the test into separate primary and upper elementary tests.
- Print the case study on paper. Many students noted difficulty in scrolling on the computer among five documents to try to find evidence of the same reading weakness. Provide test-takers with paper and pencils, rather than a felt-tip marker and a whiteboard, so they can outline their essay answers and mark up the case study documents.
- Split the scoring on the multiple-choice section and the essay assignments. Students who have taken the RICA several times say they do not know what to study because these scores are combined.
- Lengthen the time allowed to take the test. Four hours is not nearly enough time and candidates should be able to take a bathroom break without sacrificing precious minutes from the test.
My students are quite diverse but all share a frustration with the RICA. Some have taken the test up to 10 times. Some have attended private colleges; others, state universities or the University of California. Six of my 18 students were men and seven were special education candidates; two interned in lieu of student teaching.
Six were second-career students, who entered the teacher credential program in their 40s or 50s. Some of my students did their student-teaching in grade three or higher and some of the education specialist candidates did student-teaching in math or social studies.
Consequently, many did not have the benefit of learning from a master teacher the art and science of teaching reading in the early grades.
My students say that the RICA erodes their self-confidence, challenges their mental stamina, and has made them rethink their goal of becoming a teacher.
I trust that revisions will happen soon; it would be a shame to lose these dedicated and enthusiastic future teachers at a time when the state is experiencing a teacher shortage.
Tina Costantino-Lane, is a RICA tutor. Prior to retiring, she worked as a reading specialist, instructional coach and classroom teacher in Chino Valley Unified School District and as an adjunct professor of education at University of La Verne.