Even though Arkansas has now pronounced 2,803, or 10 percent, of its educators unfit to continue working in the state's public schools unless they improve their academic skills, the Arkansas teacher test is no insurance that schoolchildren in the state will be taught by fully literate teachers. The test is too easy.
It is in three parts: reading, math and writing. But Arkansas officials say it demands only enough math to compute students' grades, only enough reading skills to understand teachers' guides and only enough writing ability to send a comprehensible note home to parents. Any well- educated 9th grader could handle these tasks. In this, the "information age," the identification of those teachers who lack these simple skills should offer little reassurance. On the contrary, the Arkansas results should cause the public to ask how many of that state's teachers would fail a serious test of literacy skills.
Understandably, Arkansas legislators also felt the state's teachers should show they know the subjects they teach. But the testing law they passed allows teachers to demonstrate that knowledge by earning six hours of college credit between now and 1987.
Nor is the state exactly putting its foot down with those who failed the literacy section of the test this spring. They may take and retake the section(s) of the exam they failed as many times as they wish during the next two school years. To help them, the state will produce a refresher course to be broadcast on educational television and will distribute study guides. Those who still cannot manage a passing grade by June 1987 will not have their licenses renewed. But since the state issues teaching licenses on a six-year cycle, teachers who are relicensed in 1986 but are unable to pass the test by 1987 won't be dismissed until 1992, seven years from now.
There's even evidence to suggest that the political proponents of the test saw it as more of a legislative bargaining chip and public-relations device than as a serious means by which to raise teaching standards. Gov. Bill Clinton was in an awkward position in the fall of 1983. A task force, chaired by his wife, Hillary, had presented him with a bleak portrait of the state's schools and a series of recommendations to improve them. Action on the recommendations necessitated a special session of the legislature and a tax increase. The public, through opinion polls, was demanding accountability from the state's schools.
On Sept. 19, on the eve of the special session, the governor launched his campaign for a teacher test on statewide television. There is little doubt that the passage of the teacher-testing law during the session made it much easier for skeptical legislators to pass the first increase in Arkansas' sales tax in 26 years -- and to earmark all of the proceeds to education.
The circumstances were even more clear-cut in Texas, where the legislature, also meeting in special session on education, last summer passed a massive $4.6 billion, three-year tax package, primarily to fund initiatives in education. Influential legislators simply refused to back the tax package without some sort of visible method of holding the education establishment accountable for its performance. "No test, no tax," became the well-known slogan of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stan Schlueter.
Given this not unreasonable and not particularly onerous quid pro quo, the fierce opposition that has been thrown up against the tests by the teachers' unions is hard to understand. Even though at least 50 percent of the $160 million in new revenue produced in the first 12 months of the sales tax increase in Arkansas went to teacher salaries, the Arkansas Education Association has battled the testing law in state court (unsuccessfully), sent lobbyists in waves of 4,000 to Little Rock to work for its repeal, called in its parent organization, the National Education Association, to "investigate" the test publicly and vowed to take the test to federal court. Once political allies of Clinton, a Democrat, AEA members now adorn their cars with "No More Clintons in 1986" bumper stickers.
Nonetheless, if testing teachers is to make a real contribution to the improvement of the profession, test standards must be set high enough to convince talented potential applicants that they are entering a serious profession, one that can offer them a modicum of prestige. The Law School Admission Test and the Medical College Admission Test certainly assert this sort of influence over prospective lawyers and doctors. Unfortunately, a test such as Arkansas's, which aspires only to reassure the public that teachers can even read and write, probably does not.