Education | News | Local

School Officials Suspect 'Bias' In Oregon Teacher Exams

OPB | Feb. 7, 2013 9:31 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 8, 2013 7:18 a.m. | Portland

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Chinese Classroom at Woodstock Elementary School

Chinese Classroom at Woodstock Elementary School

Rob Manning / OPB

If you teach in an Oregon public school, you need an Oregon teaching license. For many teachers, passing the required exams isn’t hard. Now, the dismissal of a popular Portland teacher is highlighting the struggles of one group in particular: teachers who don’t teach in English.

It’s early afternoon for these third graders at Portland’s Woodstock Elementary. They’ll spend the rest of the day immersed in Chinese, led by their native Mandarin speaking teacher.

This is one of dozens of bilingual classrooms in Oregon following similar guidelines where instruction is in a foreign language.

“So imagine, if you will kinder and first graders think their teachers don’t know English – that’s how convincing the environment is.”

GM Garcia

GM Garcia

Rob Manning / OPB

That’s GM Garcia. She directs bilingual programs for Portland Public Schools.

She says as kids get older, they may learn geometry in Russian, or earth science in Japanese, but the teachers do speak English outside of class.

“Because they need to do parent-teacher conferences, consult with their colleagues, and all kinds of professional communication needs that they have.”

And, they need to pass teaching licensure exams in English. That can be tough. And it was the undoing last month of a teacher in the Japanese immersion program at Portland’s Richmond Elementary.

The teacher was on a limited license. Education officials confirm she failed a required exam and lost her job. The teacher declined to comment for this story. Her principal wrote to the licensing authorities to say she understood the decision. But parents have been outraged.

Pat Barton

Pat Barton

Rob Manning / OPB

Pat Barton has two kids at Richmond - including one in the classroom that lost its teacher. After hearing the teacher was gone, Barton sent emails to every relevant state and school district official he could find.

“… outlining my concerns around how in the world a proven, competent – outstanding, actually – teacher, with a track record in the classroom could be dismissed by the stroke of a bureaucratic pen.”

The Teachers’ Standards and Practices Commission enforces license requirements. Executive director, Vickie Chamberlain says the rules are clear.

“So, under the federal law, all elementary teachers have to pass a rigorous test and they don’t have a second way to do it, to be highly qualified.”

Chamberlain says teachers can get extra time to do the test if they need it, and there are preparation classes and practice tests they can use.

But officials at the local level, like Portland’s GM Garcia say the tests are a constant problem.

“We have a good number of past and current certified teachers that we considered to be high quality that have been unable to renew their licenses under the current licensure requirements.”

It’s a particular headache for administrators like Garcia because good bilingual Japanese and Chinese teachers can be hard to find.

She wonders if the ORELA tests – the Oregon Educators Licensure Assessments – are biased against their strongest candidates: teachers who grew up speaking a foreign language, in a foreign country.

“Two of the major issues are the linguistic or cultural biases of the ORELA that we suspect exist, as well as the correlation between the content of that test and the duties required of these teachers.”

Michael Bacon

Michael Bacon

Rob Manning / OPB

Michael Bacon knows the challenge of passing these exams firsthand. He works in Portland’s bilingual office – and is married to a Japanese teacher who is studying for the ORELA.

“She is trying to find a private tutor, is taking courses – but I think the greatest challenge in all that is to be working full-time, and then you’re lumping all that on top of your already burdened schedule.”

Bacon also senses a bias in the test questions, based on what he’s seen on his wife’s practice exams. For instance:

“The Irish potato famine – if you’ve grown up in the Japanese education system, or the Chinese education system,there’s no reason - that’s not as relevant an historical event from their perspective.”

Bacon says the tests may not account for culturally different approaches and terminology to subjects like math and science.

The suggestion of bias doesn’t sit well with the TSPC director, Vickie Chamberlain.

“No, I think it’s sort of hogwash in some respects. The only thing we can protect for is as much ethnic and cultural awareness as our community.”

Test critics say there should be other ways for teachers to prove their competence. Michael Bacon says teachers used to satisfy the writing requirement by taking a class at Portland State University. A work portfolio, or an oral exam in front of a panel has been suggested.

“Doctors don’t get three different ways to pass their tests, and neither do nurses.”

TSPC director, Vickie Chamberlain.

“The moment you start allowing these alternative routes, the validity of the actual test you’re using gets weaker.”

Back in Southeast Portland, parent Pat Barton disagrees with Chamberlain. He’s not a testing expert, but he is a data analyst by training. Barton supports alternative testing methods, but first, he says the ORELA needs more scrutiny.

“Number one, this test needs a thorough and independent review to determine its quality.” 

Language program director, GM Garcia, is hoping doubts around the test can spur bigger changes. She’s talking to Lewis and Clark’s education school about a special license for bilingual educators

“Now with the restrictions being even tighter around transitional, or emergency licensing, we’re saying we’d like a standard license that meets the needs of our teachers, and our programs, our students.”

TSPC director Vickie Chamberlain contends the vast majority of teachers pass the required exams. And says, she doesn’t know why the state should, in her words, “lower the standards for professional educators.”

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