Deep content knowledge is one of the qualities that makes a teacher great, but California’s exam to ensure its teachers have such knowledge is scaring off desperately needed candidates. The state Legislature should change how the state assesses teacher content knowledge.
For two decades, the state has relied on a standardized test — the California Subject Examinations for Teachers, or CSET — to screen teachers for knowledge of their fields. The intention — ensuring all children have a highly qualified teacher — is good. In practice, however, this flawed exam inhibits efforts to strengthen the teaching workforce.
It’s no secret that the exam deters candidates from entering the profession. As a March 2021 report by the Learning Policy Institute found, “at least 40% of those interested in teaching in California are waylaid by licensure testing.” More specifically, in 2017-18 (the most recent year with complete data), the annual passage rate for the exam was 63% overall, with rates even lower for hard-to-staff subjects such as mathematics, science, and multiple subjects (elementary education). Meanwhile, because teaching shortages are severe, each year the state issues more emergency permits to people who are unprepared for teaching than it does teaching credentials.
The problem isn’t that California has a subject-matter requirement. The problem is the incredibly limited way that the state measures subject-matter knowledge.
Policymakers are waking up to the fact that such tests are not achieving their intended purpose. The federal requirements for these kinds of exams were dropped in 2015 when the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law. The Legislature should pass the provision attached to the governor’s proposed 2021-2022 California budget that would allow aspiring teachers to meet the subject-matter requirement by completing coursework or passing state exams.
The CSET is, in fact, multiple exams. Teaching candidates have to pass anywhere from two to five tests, each a three-hour ordeal involving dozens of multiple-choice questions as well as essay questions. The only other way to satisfy the subject-matter requirement is to have completed one of a very small number of certified undergraduate courses at certain Cal State campuses.
The exam tries to honor the fact that skillful teachers nearly always have rich experiences with the subjects they teach. These experiences allow them to communicate genuine enthusiasm for the content, to make informed choices about what to teach, and to help their students understand the big ideas and “ways of knowing” associated with the subject.
The CSET, however, lacks validity. The exam measures speed, test-taking skills, ability to recall factual knowledge and alignment with culturally dominant ways of knowing — but it has no way to capture rich, deep, and/or culturally distinct understandings of the subject. As research suggests the exam doesn’t predict whether a test-taker will be an effective teacher, California needs an alternate path.
The question lawmakers should be asking is: How can we move away from thinking about content knowledge as a fixed body of “stuff,” and instead assess the extent to which aspiring teachers have deep and authentic experiences with the subject(s) they hope to teach?
At the San Diego Teaching Residency, we have been using our admissions process as a way to test out this question. Our two-year program helps candidates earn a California teaching credential as well as a master’s degree in teaching and learning. During their first year, candidates spend four days a week student-teaching alongside a skilled mentor in our network of charter schools.
When we screen applicants to the program, we look for:
Passion: Does the candidate express excitement about the subject they want to teach? Can they give specific and compelling examples of subject-specific topics, texts, and questions?
Participation: Is the candidate actively involved in activities that are core to the discipline or field? Do they have undergraduate, graduate, and/or professional experiences that align to it?
These questions allow us to identify promising teaching candidates such as one who recently enrolled in our program: an aspiring English teacher who writes her own blog, hosts a local story-slam, took a number of literature courses in college, and recently taught her grandfather — a farm worker with little formal education — how to read.
This candidate embodies many of the qualities that K-12 students need in their teacher. But, as someone who has difficulty with timed tests, she likely will struggle with the CSET English exams: a struggle that could prevent her from ever entering the classroom.
Our program also attracts graduates of highly selective colleges or career-changers coming from industry. They often find (to their dismay when they fail to pass) that the exam asks them to demonstrate knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep — nothing that takes into account the rich experiences they might have had.
We need ways to recognize the knowledge, passion and participation that mark great teachers because those are the teachers who will be able to develop knowledge, passion and participation in the young people they serve.
Sarah Fine directs the San Diego Teacher Residency at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and teaches educational leadership at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author, with Jal Mehta, of “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Transform the American High School,” (Harvard University Press), 2019.
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