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State decision widens achievement gap

The Minnesota Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators represents academic faculty from the University of Minnesota, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and private college systems including professors, instructors, and program directors. MnAECTE is the voice for early childhood teacher education in the state.

After careful deliberation at the association's winter meeting, MnAECTE disagrees with and opposes an assessment decision currently being enacted by the state Board of Teaching.

For many years the board has required teacher education students to successfully complete basic skills and professional competence tests in order to become licensed teachers. Last August, the board decided to increase the level of difficulty of the basic skills test. In contrast with usual Board of Teachin practice, little or no public testimony was taken to justify this change -- leaving the impression that this move was largely political.

MnAECTE, like other organizations opposing this decision, agrees with the principle that teacher licensure candidates need to have a balance of basic skills and professional competencies in order to be successful teachers. Our opposition to an increased level of difficulty on the basic skills tests is not out of a motivation that teacher requirements should be lax. Our concern is that this move will create an additional barrier for potential teachers of color, potential teachers who are second-language learners, and potential teachers from low-income/at-risk circumstances from ever entering teacher education programs.

This move by the board to increase the level of difficulty of the basic skills entrance exam appears to be an effort to reduce a perceived oversupply of teachers and increasing the academic qualifications of new teachers. MnAECTE finds this troubling for a number of reasons that we present for your consideration.

First, this move will most likely result in a more homogeneous white and middle-class teacher force that may have solid qualifications on paper, but may lack the cultural competence to reach Minnesota's most disadvantaged learners.

An indicator of this likelihood is the fact that while Minnesota has among the highest and most accomplished overall high school graduation rates in the country, the state suffers from among the lowest graduation rate nationally for students of color.

Second, potential teachers from non-mainstream Minnesota who can bring both cultural competence and positive role modeling to the classroom will be those most hurt by the increase in an academic skills requirement. Because such teacher education students often come from impoverished communities and under-funded schools, many lack the educational resources necessary to pass the existing basic tests on the first try.

With support and assistance, most of these students do pass the current test on a retake. This intermediate remediation step is crucial in helping close the achievement gap that currently exists in Minnesota's classrooms and would not be allowed under the new testing procedures.

MnAECTE has years of experience in working with these students, and we know many who now "hang in there" and build their skills while in their major, would walk away from the field if the basic skills presently required become "advanced skills." We further oppose any legislative move to make passing the basic skills test a requirement for entry into a teacher education program.

Finally, all candidates still need to pass the "end of program" professional competency tests also in order to become licensed. We believe that the balance of measures of academic skills and professional competence should not be thrown off by the introduction of arbitrary high stakes entrance testing that could decrease the diversity of our teaching force.

MnAECTE does not want the door shut on a vital population of potential teachers because the state wants to look above average in the present national "rush to excellence." We ask that the "norming" process for the new basic skills test take these realities from the field into consideration.

The action we urge from the Board of Teaching at this time is to postpone implementation of new testing procedures and conduct a discussion on ways that we can create an assessment system that will narrow, not widen Minnesota's increasingly notorious achievement gap.

Kathy Ofstedal of St. Cloud State University is president of the Minnesota Association of Early Childhood Education Teachers while Dan Gartrell of Bemidji State University is association public policy coordinator.