California cuts the number of exams required to earn teaching credential

Bryant Elementary School kindergarten teacher Chris Johnson sets up his classroom on April 09, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California's newly approved state budget allows teacher candidates to skip two of the tests that had been required to earn a teaching credential if they take approved coursework.

Teacher candidates no longer have to take the California Basic Skills Test, or CBEST, or the California Subject Matter Exams for Teachers, referred to as CSET to earn a credential.

The CBEST tests reading, math and writing skills and is usually taken before a student is accepted into a teacher preparation program. The CSET tests a teacher candidate's proficiency in the subject they will teach. Teacher candidates must prove subject-matter proficiency before earning a credential, but many teacher preparation programs require the test be taken before a student enters its teacher preparation program.

Nearly half of California's potential teachers struggle to pass the four standardized tests required to earn a credential, according to data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Nearly 66 percent of the people who took the CBEST in 2019-20 passed it on the first try and 83 percent passed after multiple attempts, according to commission data. The CSET, which is actually a suite of tests, had a first-time passage rate of about 67 percent in 2019-20. About 81 percent of the teacher candidates who took the test multiple times passed.

"This is a game changer for those who have dreamt of becoming a teacher only to find their paths blocked when they couldn't pass the Basic Skills or Subject Matter entrance exams," said Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. 

"These tests are meant to accurately measure readiness to begin teacher preparation, not to be a barrier that keeps potentially great teachers from learning to teach," Sandy said. "We are eager to move forward with this shift in state policy. As alternatives to high-stakes testing these measures will right-size the role of testing and allow a broader and more diverse array of people to make a career out of teaching."

The changes are effective immediately, she said.

Silvia Salgado, who resides in Corona, spent three years as an instructional assistant before she passed all sections of the CBEST and was eligible to take long-term substitute assignments. But what she really wanted was to be a kindergarten teacher, which required that she pass the multiple-subject CSET. After struggling to pass the CBEST, Salgado said she began to question herself and never found the courage to take the multiple-subject test.

"This bill passing means I can finally have my own classroom, teaching a grade level I love, and I am passionate about," Salgado said. "Like many aspiring teachers like me, who want to teach kindergarten, an exam like the CSET was an obstacle that did not allow our career dreams to come true."

The state already offered other alternatives to the CBEST, including the SAT, College Board Advanced Placement Examinations, California State University placement examinations, American College Testing or parts of the CSET. About 90 percent of teacher candidates have opted to take the CBEST, according to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. 

Instead of taking the CBEST, the new law allows teacher candidates to prove they are proficient by earning a B or better in college coursework in reading, writing and mathematics. Eligible classes to fulfill the reading requirement include critical thinking, literature, philosophy, reading, rhetoric or textual analysis. Eligible writing courses include composition, English, rhetoric, written communications or writing. Eligible math classes include geometry, mathematics, quantitative reasoning or statistics. Closely related subjects may also be accepted.

Teacher candidates who want to skip the CBEST can have their transcripts reviewed by their teacher preparation program to see if coursework they have taken fulfills the basic skills requirement. If they are applying for a credential from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, they can submit their official transcripts along with the completed application packet, Sandy said. 

If the teacher candidate wants to use a combination of coursework and tests to meet the basic skills requirement, the candidate will have to receive approval from their teacher preparation program, according to the trailer bill. 

In the past teacher candidates also have been required to pass tests that are part of the California Subject Examinations for Teachers or to complete a subject-matter program at their university. Elementary school teachers have been required to pass three tests to earn a multiple-subject credential and middle and high school teachers earned single-subject credentials in areas such as art, biology or English by passing at least one subject exam. 

Now a teacher candidate who takes approved coursework, or who earns an academic degree in the subject they will teach, does not have to take the test.

If a teacher candidate is seeking a single-subject credential the major must be aligned to the credential they are seeking. If they are seeking a multiple-subject credential, a liberal studies major or other degree that includes coursework in language studies, literature, mathematics, science, social studies, history, the arts, physical education, and human development can be accepted. Special education teachers can major in subjects covered in the CSET examination for the education specialist credential or in coursework covered by the multiple-subject test. 

A teacher preparation program will evaluate the major to see if it is acceptable, but the Commission on Teacher Credentialing will make the call for candidates who are applying to the commission directly for credentials, such as those seeking emergency-style permits, Sandy said. 

Candidates can demonstrate subject-matter competency by using any of the options or a combination of options, for example passing two of three CSET subtests and using prior coursework to meet the requirement, according to the commission.

The Commission on Teacher Credentialing may have to pass some regulations to clarify the process and will need to communicate with teacher preparation programs and teacher candidates about the new legislation, Sandy said.

Candidates who began teacher preparation but who did not complete the program should contact their program for more information on how this new legislation may affect them, Sandy said.

With a persistent teacher shortage in California, officials at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing have been looking at ways to reform teacher testing for several years. The issue became more urgent during the pandemic as testing centers closed, teacher retirements increased and the number of teachers earning credentials declined.

Although teacher candidates are still required to take the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment and the California Teaching Performance Assessment in order to earn a full credential, the state is allowing teachers to continue to postpone the assessments for a while longer.

The reading instruction assessment, which measures the ability to teach reading, is required for candidates for multiple-subject credentials as well as for special education credentials. The budget extends a current suspension of the test for candidates who were unable to complete the exam between March 19, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2021 because testing centers were closed or had limited capacity. The budget gives the Commission on Teacher Credentialing the power to extend the suspension of the tests until June 31, 2022 if it deems it necessary.

The Teaching Performance Assessment measures how well teacher candidates assess students, design instruction, organize subject matter and other skills. It is required for all but special education teachers.

The budget allows teacher candidates who can't complete the Teaching Performance Assessment next school year because of Covid-19 related school closures to earn a preliminary credential. The candidate must have completed all other preliminary credential requirements. They must complete the assessment before earning a full credential.

"The goal of testing is to ensure teacher candidates are ready to begin preparation," Sandy said. "We have to reduce the size of the roadblock."

Editors note: This story was originally published by EdSource.