CBEST Goes to Trial

Teacher & Employment Testing

One of the nation's largest employment discrimination class action lawsuits currently pending is scheduled to go to trial in mid-September. The California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), required by the state for entering public school teachers and administrators, has been challenged on behalf of more than 40,000 past, present and future Latino, African American and Asian test-takers who have been or will be harmed by the exam (see Examiner, Fall 1992).


If successful, the plaintiffs could force California to eliminate or further modify the 13-year-old test. While the CBEST is currently used only in California and Oregon, this case has national significance because similar tests are given to prospective teachers in most states. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the CBEST developer, also created and administers the National Teachers Examination (NTE) and the Pre-Professional Skills Test (PPST).


The case was originally brought in 1992 by Public Advocates, the San Francisco public interest law firm that brought the Larry P. case in 1979 which forced California to stop administering IQ tests to African American students (Examiner Fall 1992, Winter 1987-88).


The suit to eliminate the racially discriminatory CBEST was filed on behalf of the Association of Mexican-American Educators (AMAE), the Oakland Alliance of Black Educators (OABE), the California Association for Asian-Pacific Bilingual Educators (CAFABE) and eight individual educators. Plaintiffs claim that the CBEST fails to measure any job-related skills not previously demonstrated by minority test-takers. "The arbitrary content and passing scores of the CBEST have not and cannot be shown to correlate with successful teaching performance," claims lead council John Affeldt.


Because of the CBEST, many non-white teachers have been barred from working with public school students, regardless of how successful they were in the classroom. California state records show that the pass rate for whites is 80%, but only 35% for African-Americans, 49% for Latinos, and 53% for Asians. Ethnic minority students are currently estimated to comprise 60% of the states public school population, and linguistic minorities make up over 30% of California public school students.


Since the case was filed, the plaintiffs have won important preliminary victories. Federal Court Judge William Orrick ruled that CBEST is a state employment exam which must meet Federal standards of job-relatedness (see Examiner, Fall 1993), rather than a licensing exam which is exempt from such standards. He also allowed Asian, Latino and African American plaintiffs to sue together as a class rather than separately (see Examiner, Fall 1994). In certifying the class, Judge Orrick said that "each year, an average of 1,517 Latinos, 1,312 African-Americans, and 504 Asians fail the CBEST for the first time and are blocked in their access to certificated employment."


As a result of the judge's rulings, the state finally undertook a study of the CBEST's job- relatedness after twelve years of use. The state's own expert has conceded that at least 60% of the test's math section is not job-related. Plaintiffs' counsel claim that the state's study also shows little correlation between the rest of the CBEST and the jobs for which the test is required. The state has resolved, before trial, to modify the CBEST math section. It has also agreed to substantially expand the time for taking each CBEST sub-test from approximately one hour and five minutes to as much as four hours.


Other evidence which hs surfaced over the past few months indicates that California set CBEST passing scores at levels substantially higher than those recommended by ETS, apparently in an attempt to gain points with the electorate. When the state rejected ETS' recommendations, it did so without the psychometric evidence needed to justify the increase and in spite of substantially increasing the number of people of color who fail the test.


Plaintiffs emphasize that the suit aims to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to be taught by a culturally and linguistically diverse teaching force. Affeldt estimates somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 qualified teachers are barred from teaching in public schools because of the test.


The plaintiffs will request that any future state teacher employment exam allow multiple ways for candidates to demonstrate their competencies.


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