Unpacking Riley’s teacher licensing proposal

It’s a crack in the armor of high-stakes testing

THOUGH TOO TIMID BY FAR, a proposed alternative route to state teacher licensing is a hopeful crack in the armor of our destructive obsession with high-stakes testing. If you read between the lines, it speaks volumes about the discriminatory impact of high-stakes testing and the need for fundamental change, for teachers and students alike.

Contained within Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s proposal for more flexibility in teacher licensing are several significant acknowledgments: First, using standardized test scores to make high-stakes decisions has a huge discriminatory impact, with ripple effects extending from teachers of color to students of color. Second, we can and should employ alternative means to determine competence, for teachers and students. We need methods that do not discriminate and help us move toward the goal of educational equity and racial justice.

Riley’s proposal, presented to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this week, will be voted on in April as a three-year trial. It would allow teachers who fail the MTEL state teacher licensing exam repeatedly to be vetted by experts who observe their actual work in the classroom. Then they could obtain teaching licenses without fulfilling the current requirement that they pass two MTEL exams.

This is not about lowering standards. The proposal would allow teachers to get their licenses based on their actual teaching skills in the classroom, as judged by an expert evaluator. Actual skills are what we want in our teachers, not skills at taking computer-administered tests.

The need for change is urgent and compelling. Evidence continues to mount showing that students of color benefit by having teachers who look like them. Students of color who have at least one teacher of color are more successful academically and have fewer disciplinary issues.

Actually, the research says all students benefit from diversity in the teaching staff. According to a Scientific American article, “Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent, and harder-working.” (This was definitely true for me, when as a white fourth grader, I fell in love with algebra thanks to the brilliant efforts of my first black teacher, Mr. Durr.)

Massachusetts’ high-stakes licensing exam for teachers has resulted in a teaching force that does not resemble its students. In Boston, for example, students of color make up 85 percent of enrollment, while 42 percent of their teachers are of color. Boston saw 64 educators of color terminated since 2015 because of inability to obtain licenses.

Why too timid? There’s no need for a three-year trial when we’ve been through a 22-year trial that has proven that the MTEL discriminates and keeps qualified teachers of color out of the classroom, with harmful consequences for students. There’s also no need to require teachers to waste their time taking and failing a standardized exam with little connection to real-life teaching skills when there are far better ways to assess their ability to engage and connect with their students.

The same goes for students when it comes to the narrow and racially discriminatory MCAS exams, still used in Massachusetts as a high school graduation requirement. The high-stakes MTEL and MCAS were touted as critical tools to raise educational quality and close gaps in achievement between white students and students of color. Now virtually everyone acknowledges that test score gaps have been stagnant or growing for years, yet still we cling to this outmoded policy.

Meanwhile, other states have abandoned their graduation tests. Massachusetts is one of just 11 states that still have one, down from a one-time high of 27 states.

Meet the Author

Lisa Guisbond

Analyst, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
The focus on test scores has narrowed the curriculum and created a negative school climate, while doing nothing to address racial injustice or opportunity gaps. High school should be about developing actual life skills, not techniques for taking the MCAS.

Lisa Guisbond is executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, which opposes high-stakes standardized testing.