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Why Illinois Educators Welcome Halt To Basic Skills Test

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Two years ago Katie Pasternak took the teacher "basic skills" test or TAP for the first time. She easily passed the writing section, but the other three didn't go as well.


"I'm looking at my receipts and how many times I really took this test," she said. "And I was like, 'Oh my God.'"


She isn't alone. The test has a 25% pass rate. A lot of test-takers use the whole allotted time to finish, which is five hours.


You have to wait 30 days to take the test again. If you want to take the whole thing, it's $113 a pop, $68 if you only take one subset.


That can get expensive for some students, including Pasternak, who have to take it multiple times. Then there are practice exams, study books, tutors...


"I mean, it cost me thousands of dollars," said Pasternak.


She finally passed her last section in April. Now,she's allowed to student teach next year, her final at Northern Illinois University.

Last September, the Illinois State Board of Education announced it will no longer require the basic skills test after June 30, 2019. They wanted to conduct a study to find a better option.

Now, a plan to kill the the test for the next six years passed both chambers and is waiting at the governor's desk.


Rep. Sue Scherer introduced and sponsored that bill. The Democrat taught public school for 34 years before her time in office.


"My history with these kinds of tests, the track record I've seen is I'm still waiting to see a good test come out for any of them," said Scherer. "They're not good, well-written tests."


Scherer said the best student teacher she'd ever seen couldn't pass the basic skills test, and gave up her teaching dream.


"Before we got rid of basic skills, teachers were taking more tests than lawyers, doctors, CPAs and nurses," she said. “I mean, and we have a severe teaching shortage."


Scherer hopes axing the test will remove one hurdle to getting teachers in schools during the shortage.


Teachers have to get a 22 on their ACT or 1,100 on their SATto be exempt from the test.


Laurie Elish-Piper is the dean of the College of Education at NIU. She drove down to Springfield earlier this year along with other educators to testify about the basic skills test.


"So I think that we need to realize that the elimination of the basic skills testing requirement is removing a hoop, it's not removing the expectation that students come in well prepared," she said.


Elish-Piper says the test has deterred some from pursuing education.


Pasternak says she's seen it happen during her time in NIU's program.


"I watched a lot of friends and a lot of people that I knew that they got to that breaking point in the program where they thought, 'Screw it, I'm going to drop out and I'm going to pick another major,'" she said. "But I thought that's just not who I am. I want to be a teacher."


Elish-Piper says the test disproportionately affects potential teachers from diverse backgrounds and adults returning to get their degree.


She thinks the public has a fundamental misunderstanding of what the test even is. Some think it tests their basic knowledge of what they want to teach. But that's not true. Those are "content area" tests.


Basic Skills tests for four categories: writing, reading/comprehension, language arts, and math.


It's not just that the test is strenuous for students. Elish-Piper says it also isn't even a good barometer for what makes a good teacher.


"So if you're going to be a high school math teacher, you absolutely need to understand those complex algebraic equations, and trigonometry and calculus and so on," she said. "If you're going to be an early childhood teacher, that doesn't mean you don't need to know math, but you need to know different math and you need to know a lot about child development, you need to know a lot about how young children learn."


Elish-Piper says Illinois standards are high enough with courses, clinicals, student teaching, and other tests like the EdTPA.


While Elish-Piper and Scherer agree on the elimination of the basic skills test, they disagree on the EdTPA. That's another test assessing skills and procedures which includes a controversial section where teachers are videoed in a classroom environment.


Scherer is the chief sponsor of another measure which would remove the video component. She called that section "disastrous."


The EdTPA is not free either. It costs $300 to take.


Elish-Piper, on the other hand, thinks it's a much better test than the basic skills, and shouldn't be removed unless there’s a sufficient replacement.

Even if the plan to end the basic skills test doesn’t become law, the state board of education will still be putting it on hold at the end of the month.