IN ARKANSAS last week, the results of the nation's first statewide teacher competency test were released. It is a step that may significantly change the way in which a teacher's abilities are assessed. Georgia and Texas will conduct similar tests this year. Several other states have teacher testing under consideration.
Nine out of 10 of Arkansas' 28,000 teachers passed the exam, which tested their reading, writing and math skills. It was part of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's educational revision program. Mr. Clinton hopes it will be a valuable tool in upgrading the performance of the state's public schools. It was stridently opposed by some teachers, the powerful National Education Association and its affiliate, the Arkansas Education Association (AEA). They argued that the test does not adequately assess a teacher's abilities, is culturally biased against black teachers, and is a "cheap, political quick fix." We side with Mr. Clinton.
Educationally speaking, Arkansas has been the poor sister to the rest of the nation. As a state, it ranks 47th in teacher salaries and 47th in per-pupil expenditures. It has the lowest percentage of college graduates in the country. Four of every 100 adults in Arkansas are illiterate, one of the highest rates in the country.
An exam that determines whether teachers can read, write and compute effectively, in conjunction with efforts to evaluate their classroom performance and raise salaries, seems a reasonable and prudent way to improve the Arkansas schools. The director of the California-based firm that developed the exam said it is nothing more than a test of reading, writing and math abilities. It seems sensible, for example, to expect teachers to be able to tell you the main idea of a short paragraph. If they cannot, then they should not be teaching children.
It is a fact that tests such as these have been used unfairly to exclude some segments of the population from certain opportunities, but that does not seem to be the case here. Test questions were adapted from the kinds of materials that a competent teacher would understand. It is true that, proportionally speaking, more black teachers than white teachers failed one or more of the three tests, but that does not necessarily mean the tests were culturally biased. One-third of the 36-member committee that reviewed the test was black. A review committee of black educators also screened the test.
The final fact is that Arkansas teachers will have considerable time, until June 1987, to pass the three tests. The AEA is preparing a federal court challenge to the test, but that would be ill advised. All students in the Arkansas schools deserve teachers who have abilities beyond those required to pass what is generally accepted to be a college- level test of basic skills.