California Teacher Test Upheld by Federal Appeals Court

Teacher & Employment Testing

By a narrow margin, the full Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court decision allowing use of the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST) to license entry level teachers in the state. Unless the multi-cultural coalition of educators who brought the suit seeks U.S. Supreme Court intervention, the Appeals Court decision will end years of closely-contested litigation (see Examiner, Spring 2000, Spring 1997, Fall 1996, Summer 1995, and Fall 1993).


The Appeals Court majority held that the CBEST was valid, despite the disproportionate number of minorities who failed it. The California education department admits that the first-time passage rate for whites is 80 percent, compared with 37 percent for blacks, 47 percent for Hispanics, and 60 percent for Asians. According to the majority opinion, “The CBEST is not intended to measure all the skills that are relevant to all the jobs for which it is required. It is intended to establish only a minimum level of competence in three areas of basic education.” The CBEST claims to cover reading, writing, and mathematics skills.


A vigorous dissent by three judges, argued, “By erroneously affirming the district court’s decision, we allow the State of California to perpetuate discrimination against qualified minority teachers, who are already seriously underrep-resented in the California public school system, and, derivatively, against minority students as well.”


Typical of those disqualified from teaching by the CBEST requirement is a Cambodian-born educator with a bachelor’s degree and a postgraduate teacher preparation certificate who wanted to teach bilingual classes to California’s growing population of Khmer-speaking elementary students. The candidate fell 4 points short of passing the (English language) reading section of the test.


Plaintiffs, ably represented by the non-profit Public Advocates law firm, did win some significant victories in the multi-year litigation. In response to the suit, California officials eliminated many clearly irrelevant questions and quadrupled the time test-takers are allowed to complete it. This should benefit candidates whose first language is not English.


Procedurally the case established that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which deals with occupational licensing exams that produce racially disparate impacts in pass rates, applies to state-mandated teacher competency exams, even though local districts are the educators’ actual employers. The Court reasoned that the state can be held liable for discrimination because it imposed the testing requirement.


• For further information: John Affeldt, Public Advocates, 1535 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 431-7430.