The Problem With The New York Teacher Exam Is That White People Are More Likely To Pass It

Adofo Muhammad, center, principal of Bedford Academy High School, teaches 10th and 11th graders in his Global Studies class on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in New York. CREDIT: AP/BEBETO MATTHEWS
Adofo Muhammad, center, principal of Bedford Academy High School, teaches 10th and 11th graders in his Global Studies class on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in New York. CREDIT: AP/BEBETO MATTHEWS

A federal judge ruled that a New York Teachers exam is racially biased because it did not properly measure skills relevant to all teachers. For black and Latino candidates, the pass rate ranged between 54 percent and 75 percent of white candidates’ pass rate.

The Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, LAST-2 “was not properly validated as job related, because the exam’s designers did not employ procedures to identify the specific areas of depth and knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences that any competent teacher would need to understand,” Kimba M. Wood wrote in her decision.

This was the latest salvo in a court battle that has been going on since 1996. In 2012, the same federal judge ruled that an older teachers’ exam, LAST-1, which was discontinued in 2004, was also racially biased. The decision to test teachers this way began in 1988 when a New York task force that studied teacher qualifications concluded that “all teachers should have a basic understanding of the liberal arts in order to be competent to teach,” and the LAST-1 test began being administered to teachers in 1993.

One of the issues with the exam was its focus on liberal arts, and the assumption that all teachers should be familiar with those subject areas in order to be an effective teacher. Joshua Sohn, whose law firm, Mishcon de Reya represents the teachers in the lawsuit, said that teachers of color who failed the test may be entitled to back pay.


National Evaluation Systems, the company responsible for creating the test, is now owned by Pearson Education. It sent surveys to teachers all over the state to see if the test subjects were germane to teaching skills but the sample surveys were small, Judge Wood said in her decision. According to the decision, the first survey was sent to 500 teachers and only completed by 320 teachers with only 24 black respondents and 10 Latino respondents. The second survey was sent to 181 faculty members but only 45 were returned and none of the respondents were black. Three of the respondents of the second survey were Latino.

One of the sections of the test, the academic literacy skills test, featured a few paragraphs on Gertrude Stein’s life, followed by questions about the text. Here is one example:

In paragraph 1, the repetition of the phrase “well-rounded, prosperous” emphasizes

A. the sophistication of Stein’s familyB. the predictability of the life Stein rejectedC. the flowering of Stein’s creative powersD. the contempt for convention Stein embodied

Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and author of “This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education,” said that tests like the LAST tend to assess a narrow cultural knowledge more than they actually assess the skills teachers need to be effective every day in the classroom.


“I’d say when I look at the LAST, which I did have to take to become a teacher, I found myself needing to reference more of the normative, or majority white knowledge, if you will,” Vilson said. “There is that idea that you have to code switch and the LAST seems to be a better measure of how you adapted to the norms of white society than it is about your actual quality as a teacher.”

Vilson said that policymakers and test companies need to rethink the content of the tests because they don’t adequately measure good teaching methods, which is more important than knowing a random fact about geography or literature. He argued that the LAST exams were a reflection of a focus on “teaching to the test” rather than allowing teachers to take creative approaches.

“It seems like there’s a lot of subjectivity that underlies a lot of the things we consider fact … Are we thinking of the tests as pure? And the answer is that we need to reconsider what it means to be a good teacher now. ‘Is LAST what actually passes for what is good teaching?’ and I would say ‘No.’”

The issue of racial bias in teachers’ exams reaches farther than New York, however. In recent years, there has been a movement to raise standards for teachers’ exams. The National Council on Teacher Quality has been one of the leading organizations pushing for more changing standards for teachers’ exams in recent years.

Critics say some of these efforts impede the hiring of more teachers of color. There is already a dearth of teachers of color, even though the student population is becoming more diverse. Even though only a little more than half of students are white, teachers of color make up only 18 percent of public school teachers, according to a report from The Center for American Progress.

Illinois has been one of the states grappling with the issue of increasing teacher diversity despite efforts to change teacher exams. In 2013, Illinois education leaders pushed for new standards on the Test for Academic Proficiency, which all prospective teachers must take. The scores required to pass the test doubled and students’ ability to retake the test was limited to five tries. The test is a five-hour test taken on the computer and is generally defined as being on a college sophomore level of knowledge.


They were met with criticism from teachers speaking on behalf of the Illinois Education Association and Gery Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, who cautioned that the tests would make the teaching field even whiter after there was a drop in teaching candidates of color passing the exam. Test result data showed that 18 percent of black students and 23 percent of Latino students passed the math test of the four-section exam compared to 40 percent of white students, with similar disparities in the reading comprehension portion of the exam.

In Seattle, students and teachers boycotted the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress test. In 2010, a parent group that opposed the test said it created obstacles for special education students, non-English speaking students and minority and low-income children.

On the issue of Judge Wood’s ruling on New York teacher exams, Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said to The New York Times, “They’re saying, at the risk of not appearing racist, or at the risk of having to make a hard call against adults, I’m going to sacrifice the best needs of kids.”