Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

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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  1. Heather Nemanic 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I think all teachers should definitely be qualified not only in their chosen fields but in all courses. It’s important that every teacher be knowledgeable and capable of answering all questions a Student might ask, be it in the particular field the teachers are teaching as well as other fields of study. Far too many teachers can’t answer a question correctly unless it’s in their field of study. I remember the good old days when … Read More

    I think all teachers should definitely be qualified not only in their chosen fields but in all courses. It’s important that every teacher be knowledgeable and capable of answering all questions a Student might ask, be it in the particular field the teachers are teaching as well as other fields of study. Far too many teachers can’t answer a question correctly unless it’s in their field of study.

    I remember the good old days when all teachers could answer questions put to them, be it in their field or any other field of study. Students are supposed to know and talk about all fields of study, they don’t graduate unless they can answer any questions put to them, isn’t it time teachers be capable of doing the same …

    Replies

    • Mark 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      I have a B.A. in English. That doesn’t qualify me to be in English teacher in CA. It’s absurd that I can’t get a waiver to teach English. I hope they pass the bill in July to allow coursework to waive the CSET. That’s money-hungry CA for you. Money > People.

  2. K. P. 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The CSET Exams test subject knowledge. We want our teachers to know their subjects well so we need to test them in them. Who wants a mathematics teacher who does not know the mathematics they need to teach? I took the 3 mathematics CSET exams 3 years ago and found that the exams cover the necessary material quite well. There are two parts to each exam...the multiple choice part where you don't need to show … Read More

    The CSET Exams test subject knowledge. We want our teachers to know their subjects well so we need to test them in them. Who wants a mathematics teacher who does not know the mathematics they need to teach? I took the 3 mathematics CSET exams 3 years ago and found that the exams cover the necessary material quite well. There are two parts to each exam…the multiple choice part where you don’t need to show work, and the written part in which you must show your work as if you were teaching it to middle school or high school students.

    These exams do not check that someone will be a good teacher; that’s for credential programs to check. However I have known many people who are “good teachers” but cannot explain the mathematics well. Keep the exams to keep our education system sharp.

  3. Martin Blythe 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Good article. And let's throw in RICA while we are at it. My experience of the CSET English - when I decided to return to teaching - almost drove me away altogether. I failed the "speech communications" part of Part 4, since knowing the jargon apparently was what was needed. I had to retake all of Part 4, of course, but I almost didn't bother. The test I took didn't have that bit so I … Read More

    Good article. And let’s throw in RICA while we are at it. My experience of the CSET English – when I decided to return to teaching – almost drove me away altogether. I failed the “speech communications” part of Part 4, since knowing the jargon apparently was what was needed. I had to retake all of Part 4, of course, but I almost didn’t bother. The test I took didn’t have that bit so I passed.

    I would add that Sarah Fine’s paragraph on how the CSET lacks validity is at the heart of it, especially when she refers to “culturally distinct understandings of the subject.” That’s worth another essay in itself, especially for urban schools, like where I teach. Sarah?

  4. Meghan Byrne 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I recently moved from a career in science into teaching and am currently finishing a year in the San Francisco Teacher Residency program. I have a PhD in molecular biology and so, as you might guess, have spent many years deep in the sciences. I passed the CSET but found it to be a waste of time and money, and frankly off-putting. In today's world being able to regurgitate the details of the Krebs cycle … Read More

    I recently moved from a career in science into teaching and am currently finishing a year in the San Francisco Teacher Residency program. I have a PhD in molecular biology and so, as you might guess, have spent many years deep in the sciences. I passed the CSET but found it to be a waste of time and money, and frankly off-putting. In today’s world being able to regurgitate the details of the Krebs cycle is silly. The reality is that you cram the information for the exam then forget it within a week – exactly what we don’t want to ask our own students to do once we become teachers.

  5. Dr. Olivia 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The argument outlined in this essay could well be used to argue against standardized testing for students. While the outcomes of the CSET in terms of narrowing the pool of who gets to teach in California is of major concern, can we continue to "test" students but have no similar tool for determining teacher competence? Since the disconnect between course completion and CSET outcomes are well known, can we arrive at what teachers need to … Read More

    The argument outlined in this essay could well be used to argue against standardized testing for students. While the outcomes of the CSET in terms of narrowing the pool of who gets to teach in California is of major concern, can we continue to “test” students but have no similar tool for determining teacher competence?

    Since the disconnect between course completion and CSET outcomes are well known, can we arrive at what teachers need to know in order to ‘pass’ these exams and look to the UC’s and CSU’s for answers in how they may prepare their teachers for teaching as well as for passing the state required exams? Given that students have to face a battery of state assessments each year, how will teachers adequately prepare students to confront and excel of these assessments if they don’t have direct knowledge of the very process of taking and passing high stakes assessments constructed like the CSET for teachers and SBAC for students? This is a high equity and justice issue both for the teachers and the students. Often prospective teachers who are left behind by the CSET are the very teachers needed to develop a more diverse teaching force in California and students left behind by state standardized assessment outcomes are often our students of color. The students that are not getting access to the best of higher education in California because of test outcomes are our Black and Brown students. The level of scholarship students have to demonstrate to qualify for the UC’s and CSU’s rests in the scholarship of their teachers. Close attention must be paid to both building and assessing teacher scholarship.

    Removing the teacher qualifying exam must be aligned with efforts to remove standardized testing for students. The road to determining teacher readiness through means (experience, professional teaching products etc.) other than the CSET must be aligned with the quest for determining student knowledge and scholarship through other means (course passing, grades, learning products etc.) other than state standardized assessments.

  6. Joann 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    So now we are going to "dumb down" the teachers for schools that have been dumbing down the curriculum for decades? When I moved to this state and was required to take the CBEST, I was appalled. This is a test that any reasonably intelligent 8th grader could pass. And there are adults who want to teach who have to take it multiple times to pass - then the state lets them … Read More

    So now we are going to “dumb down” the teachers for schools that have been dumbing down the curriculum for decades? When I moved to this state and was required to take the CBEST, I was appalled. This is a test that any reasonably intelligent 8th grader could pass.

    And there are adults who want to teach who have to take it multiple times to pass – then the state lets them go into a classroom to teach!?! Subject area teachers do not have the luxury of telling “stories” about the rich experiences they have had. The state establishes standards that are to be taught in a systematic and formative manner. Teachers need to know the content a mile wide and a mile deep. This state needs to improve the teacher education programs in all universities and stop making excuses in order to hire folks who cannot even write a complete and proper sentence. I see it everyday.

  7. M. D. 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I definitely can say that I have avoided a K-12 teaching career because of the CSET. I taught postsecondary English for over 15 years at the University level, adult school, extension classes, and vocational schools in the US & abroad. After earning an MA and working 4 years in a university, I switched to adult ed, which required the CBEST. This exam was very basic, but I did have to study math for a … Read More

    I definitely can say that I have avoided a K-12 teaching career because of the CSET. I taught postsecondary English for over 15 years at the University level, adult school, extension classes, and vocational schools in the US & abroad. After earning an MA and working 4 years in a university, I switched to adult ed, which required the CBEST. This exam was very basic, but I did have to study math for a couple of months because as a career English teacher, when did I use the math I had earned in high-school? (almost never)… but I passed.

    Now I am trying for a multiple subject credential and the CSET makes me sooo nervous. I have been working in a K classroom for 2 years as an instructional assistant as a way to transition from college level to K-5. If there were some other way to show that I am ready for my own class and am fully confident in my ability to teach common core standards and differentiate at that, I would have already earned my credential.

    But the CSET is absurd. I find that it requires memorization for so many facts and if we were in the classroom, we would have the material to read, review, absorb, reflect & plan to teach. How can knowing what year a certain leader ruled prove that I can teach & lead a classroom? Maybe if I had just graduated high-school, I would be better with all these facts. Here I am an educated educator for 19 years, a Spanish speaker (having learned after the age of 30 by living abroad) and a passionate teacher who wants to help all kids learn to read and be successful in their learning journeys… but the CSET, or my anxiety around it, has been a huge road block.

    I would much rather take a class for a year that covers all the information that the CSET assumes I need to be an effective K-5 teacher. Where is that course? I don’t mind being tested on the different subjects 1 at a time or showing that I can learn the CSET course matter. But to memorize 5 or 6 different subject matter facts, and take a timed test feels absurd in my opinion.

    Who knows? Maybe I will pass on my 1st try, but it still feels absurd. I just spent 6 years with my own child in K-5, helping with homework and being a room parent year after year, and honestly, many of the questions on the CSET do not reflect what is being taught in California K-5 public schools.

  8. Pratibha Maurya 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Subject matter competency should be completely removed from the teacher preparation as when teaching programs are preparing teachers then what is the point of taking tests.

  9. Jim 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    My wife is a union teacher and CTA member with a master’s in education. She thought the entire accreditation process was idiotic and designed only to prevent people from becoming teachers.

  10. MP 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    CTC had a meeting last week on Friday, April 16th. They have voted to extend the CSET waivers for student teaching for the 2021 – 2022 school year. I am not sure as to when they will notify the general public and programs.

    Replies

    • MR 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Hi, I hope the CTC sends out information about CSET. I will be student teaching in the fall and would be relieved to find out more details. These tests are expensive and intense. Hope there will be better changes to this teacher credentialing process!

      • MP 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        Hi MR,

        The meeting was recorded via CTC and available to view on YouTube. For Student teaching it is item 4H.

        Thanks, M

        • Madhuri 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

          MP, thanks for responding with the resource. I will check it out.