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Throughout the next half decade, Wilds-Bethea worked toward a full-time, fully licensed position as a teacher. He took a test required by the Board of Examiners, got a second master’s degree, and completed a probationary period. He thought that he was in the system for good and settled into a job at P.S. 92, a school in Harlem, where many of the faculty members were Black. But, in 1991, a new law went into effect that meant that Wilds-Bethea, along with other teachers across the city, had to pass yet another test: the National Teacher Examination, or N.T.E. The N.T.E., which had been administered in other states for decades, was adopted by New York after several task forces concluded that low standards for teachers were hurting student performance, and called for greater knowledge of the liberal arts among educators. The exam covered basic knowledge of social studies, science, math, literature, and writing. New York City teachers—even those who had already been tenured and previously licensed—needed to pass in order to keep their full-time jobs with seniority and benefits.

Wilds-Bethea started taking the N.T.E. Each time, he would fail by two or three points. He typically did fine on the math and science sections, but he had trouble on the communications section, which he attributes to a then undiagnosed hearing impairment that made it hard for him to focus on the listening portion of the test. There were also essay prompts, which Wilds-Bethea described as “ridiculous”: “I just went and wrote any old bullshit,” he said. Wilds-Bethea failed the N.T.E. ten times. In 1993, the state began phasing out the N.T.E. and introduced an alternative exam, the Liberal Arts and Science Test, or LAST, which Wilds-Bethea took and failed three times.

He wasn’t the only teacher who struggled with the N.T.E. and the LAST. At P.S. 92, Wilds-Bethea and his colleagues traded horror stories about their test-taking experiences. One woman said that she threw up every time she took one of the exams.

Wilds-Bethea heard that some teachers were organizing to address problems with the tests. The first meeting that he attended was at a middle school in the Bronx, in the lunchroom after school. There were maybe half a dozen people there. Wilds-Bethea served as note-taker. They gave themselves a name: the Committee for a Fair Licensing Procedure.

The group started meeting every few weeks at different schools across the city. Soon, they were averaging a hundred people at each gathering, with several thousand more subscribed to the group’s newsletter. Committee members would visit test sites, where they would hand out pamphlets and a questionnaire. They started compiling a database of affected teachers who had repeatedly failed the N.T.E. and the LAST.

Wilds-Bethea felt consumed by these tests. He wrote to the heads of licensing for New York City and State, asking for an exemption for previously full-time, tenured teachers, but got no response. To him, it seemed unfair to make full-time teachers prove themselves in this way—and to watch the ones who failed get demoted and lose pay, which is what eventually happened to him. And then there was the personal humiliation of it: “your feelings of being incompetent,” he said. His colleagues “wanted to be educators. And they’ve been tarnished and labelled. It’s not good for your self-esteem.”


The committee members were predominantly Black, although not exclusively: a few Latino educators joined, along with a substantial minority of white Russian immigrants. According to coverage from the time, the N.T.E. had earned a nickname in some circles: the Negro Teacher Eliminator. A presentation by Bob Schaeffer, from the advocacy organization FairTest, confirmed the committee’s perception that the test was racially biased. From 1993 through 1994, an average of eighty-four per cent of white test-takers passed the N.T.E., compared with forty-four per cent of Black test-takers, and forty per cent of Latino test-takers. From March, 1993, to June, 1995, the average pass rate for the LAST was ninety-three per cent for white test-takers, compared with fifty-three per cent and fifty per cent for Black and Latino test-takers, respectively.

After consulting a civil-rights attorney, the committee voted to sue New York City and State for violating Title VII, the legal provision that prohibits race-based discrimination in the workplace, along with other provisions. Their class-action lawsuit, filed in 1996, was made up of Black and Latino teachers who failed the N.T.E. or the LAST. The case has dragged on for almost three decades, and has come to include more than five thousand plaintiffs.

The court found that Black and Latino teachers clearly passed these tests at lower rates than white teachers. In order to prove that this wasn’t illegal, the defendants had to show that the test actually demonstrated what it promised: that teachers who did well on the test would do better in their jobs. A district-court judge, Constance Baker Motley—a Black woman and famous civil-rights lawyer who worked with Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board—initially found in favor of New York, concluding that the N.T.E. and the LAST were sufficiently job-related to justify their use. But the Second Circuit vacated part of that decision and dropped New York State as a defendant. Another district-court judge, Kimba Wood, subsequently found that the city had violated Title VII because the LAST was not properly validated, or proven to show what it said it showed. In 2021, the city agreed to a schedule of payments. This fight over tests has proved expensive: the city now owes many of these teachers significant back pay and other financial compensation. The payouts are expected to total about $1.8 billion—the highest dollar-value judgment ever brought against New York City. (In a statement, a New York City Law Department spokesman called the court’s decisions “mistaken” and said they “unfairly burden City taxpayers with costly judgements.”)

The lawsuit raised a difficult question that never really got resolved: Were these tests racist? Coverage of the case, especially in conservative outlets, has focussed on this matter. One New York Post article noted tartly that Herman Grim, a Queens resident who will get a payout of more than two million dollars from the city after failing the LAST in the nineties, could not give any examples of why the test was racially biased. The clearly intended takeaway is that teachers who weren’t smart enough to pass a basic-knowledge exam cried racism and will get to collect millions of dollars as a result.


Actual question examples from the LAST and the N.T.E. are difficult to find, in part because portions of the trial transcript have been sealed—test-makers didn’t want their proprietary materials being made public. But in the available sections of the transcript, the prosecution’s expert witness, Frank Landy, a professor of industrial psychology at Penn State, did discuss a few N.T.E. questions that he found particularly problematic. One apparently asked test-takers to look at a performance stage and speculate about why its designer had created it in such an “unadorned” way. Another concerned the splitting of the hemispheres of the brain, which Landy said would require a sophisticated understanding of “neurophysiology and neuroanatomy” and had “multiple correct answers.” Some test-takers were presented with a picture of the cadet chapel of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and asked about its aesthetic purpose. Landy visited the Academy’s Web site looking for an answer, and found that none of the multiple-choice options listed on the test matched the explanation the Academy gave.

During the trial, Landy argued that people’s experiences and knowledge are always shaped by race. “If I grew up in New York, would I go to MoMA and the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum and listen to NPR?” he said. “I’m a 60-year-old Irish Catholic. I look at things a particular way, whether I want to or not.” In a conversation with me, Joshua Sohn, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, recalled that on the LAST, teachers were asked to explain the meaning of Andy Warhol’s famous soup-can paintings. He questioned why a kindergarten special-education teacher or a Spanish teacher needs to know this; in his view, it’s not a meaningful measure of how well they can do their jobs. But the question also gets to the heart of the case: “The further away the test gets from evaluating basic skills—reading, writing, math—the more likely it is to have some type of difference performance by group,” Sohn told me. “It necessarily tests culture.”

The plaintiffs’ ultimate argument is not that white people know about Andy Warhol and Black people don’t. It’s that asking experienced teachers to correctly interpret the meaning of soup cans is not actually job-related—it’s closer to a poll test than a carefully considered question of competency.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court banned race-based affirmative action in college admissions. This reopened old debates over tests such as the SAT and ACT and whether they disproportionately favor white and Asian applicants. And yet, these debates about race and higher education focus on the end of a long pipeline. Years before recent high-school seniors prepared to take college-entrance exams, their teachers all had to take tests, too—tests that have sometimes been found by the courts to illegally disadvantage minority groups.

There’s an extensive history of states using licensure exams, sometimes intentionally, to keep Black educators out of classrooms following Brown v. Board. In the seventies, as Southern states reluctantly desegregated their schools, Black teachers and the National Education Association, a teachers’ union, believed that state officials deliberately used the N.T.E. to make it less likely that Black teachers would obtain certification. This was primarily achieved through cutoff scores—the score someone needed to get on the test in order to pass, which was determined by state officials and varied from place to place. According to research by Leslie Fenwick, a professor of education policy at Howard, these scores have often been set slightly above the average pass rate for Black test-takers. In a quote from a 1970 report, the program director for the N.T.E. warned, “You can build the best test available . . . but if there’s malice in somebody’s heart, it can be used to eliminate Blacks.”

In the eighties, Black teachers successfully sued the state of Alabama for using teacher-certification tests that were culturally biased and had an adverse effect on racial minorities. In a report she authored, Fenwick described the introduction in the nineties of the Praxis I, now called the Praxis Core—a broad-based skills test required in some states, often for college students interested in becoming teachers—as a disaster for her education department at a historically Black college in Atlanta. Suddenly, instead of bustling hallways, the department struggled to recruit teacher candidates. Black students had lower pass rates on the Praxis I than white students, and failing this test meant that they were cut off from trying to become teachers before they had even started. The test shrunk the whole Black-teacher pipeline.


Racially disparate pass rates on aptitude tests aren’t just a problem for aspiring teachers. The ACT, the SAT, the LSAT, the MCAT—Black students do worse than white students on nearly every prominent precollege and preprofessional test. To Fenwick, the problem lies with test-makers: “If all those tests, including teacher tests, are showing that there are racial disparities that have a practical significance in terms of who we allow into professions,” she said, “you need to update your tests.”

And yet there’s a lot of disagreement among experts about this question—whether the tests are inherently flawed, or whether they just reflect society’s deeper problems with race. “I don’t think it’s surprising that we see a disparate impact on test performance,” said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington whom another scholar described as “the doyen” of researchers in this area. “There is inequality in society. And one of the ways that manifests is with different educational outcomes.” Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (N.C.T.Q.), pointed out that disparate pass rates may reflect the racial inequalities of K-12 schooling—all aspiring teachers were once students themselves, and lots of evidence suggests that racial and ethnic minorities aren’t doing as well in American schools as white students. “The idea that because there are disparate pass rates, it somehow means that the instrument itself is biased—I take issue with that as a premise,” Peske said. When it comes to teachers who don’t pass the test, “we haven’t provided test-takers of color with the content knowledge that they need to go and be successful with students. And that’s really problematic for many reasons.” It’s a vicious cycle: Black and Latino students are more likely to attend failing schools, where research shows they’re more likely to be placed with teachers who are uncertified or still in training. Some of these kids will grow up to want to be teachers, but they may have trouble passing the tests they need to enter the profession. That will mean fewer Black and Latino teachers in classrooms. Research strongly suggests that when Black students, in particular, learn from teachers who look like them, they do better in school, take more advanced courses, and are more likely to graduate from high school and college.

There’s another weak link in that cycle, one that can be politically touchy to talk about: teachers’ colleges. According to the N.C.T.Q., most teacher-training programs don’t even require applicants to have a G.P.A. of 3.0 or above, the equivalent of a B average. Once aspiring teachers enter their programs, they don’t necessarily learn what they need to prepare students: only a quarter of elementary-school teacher-training programs address all the components of scientifically based reading instruction, and another quarter don’t teach scientifically based reading methods at all. Graduate programs for elementary-school teachers often emphasize math pedagogy over math content, even though many teachers feel unprepared to instruct students in basic concepts. Many programs don’t give teachers in training enough opportunities for clinical practice in classrooms. And teacher-training programs are overwhelmingly whiter than the campuses where they’re housed. Many well-meaning policymakers have suggested that having “a more diverse teacher workforce necessarily depends on lowering the standards for who can become a teacher,” according to a report by the N.C.T.Q. (In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the New York State Education Department said that “creating more inclusive opportunities for more New Yorkers to enter the teaching field should not be viewed as lowering standards, and any attempt to draw that conclusion is baseless and abhorrent.”)


Still, Peske told me, “we run the risk of perpetuating the inequities that presently exist in our K-12 education system.” In her view, that’s where licensure tests come in: they measure everyone the same way, even when they come out of programs of wildly varying quality. “Licensure tests serve as important guardrails on content knowledge of teachers,” Peske continued. “When we take these shortcuts in preparing teachers and insuring that they have knowledge and skills, it costs everyone, and, most of all, it costs the students.”

Goldhaber pointed out that, in the debate over licensure tests, “there’s a lot of options besides have exams or don’t have exams.” For example, states can adjust or get rid of cutoff scores for teacher tests. Instead of making the test an up-or-down measure of whether someone can enter the profession, their score could be one piece of information a district may or may not use in hiring. Many states, including New York, also require certain teachers to pass subject-area exams—high-school chemistry teachers have to prove they know chemistry, for example. These subject-specific tests raise far fewer objections from educators who criticize the racial impacts of general-knowledge tests, in part because the disparities in outcomes are less pronounced.

Not all test alternatives are equally good. In 2014, New York began requiring teacher candidates to take the edT.P.A., an extensive assessment that focusses on their performance in the classroom, drawing on sample lesson plans and materials, written narratives about their experiences, and video samples of their teaching. A few years later, the state lowered the passing score for the test; Black test-takers were nearly twice as likely to fail the edT.P.A. as white or Hispanic test-takers, according to an analysis done by Chalkbeat. Last year, the state got rid of the edT.P.A altogether. New York State United Teachers, a federation of unions that represents a huge number of teachers in the state, hailed the move, citing reports from students and educators who “said completing the edT.P.A. was so consuming and stressful that it ruined the student teaching experience.” Teacher candidates in New York no longer have to take a broad-based knowledge or practical exam; starting this fall, their preparation programs will be primarily responsible for evaluating whether they’re ready to be in a classroom. Goldhaber was skeptical of this approach. Teachers’ colleges have “pretty strong financial incentives not to tell somebody who is pursuing a teaching career, ‘Sorry, we don’t think you’re going to make it,’ ” he said. “Those kinds of institutional incentives make me think that very few people would be ruled out.”

David Steiner, a former New York State commissioner of education and current professor of education at Johns Hopkins, said that most teachers’ colleges are fundamentally mismatched to the profession, focussing on traditional academic research and publishing over clinical classroom prep—he called the clinical training “pretty hopeless.” In the face of a severe nationwide teacher shortage and a disproportionately white teacher pipeline, “it’s much, much easier to do a chase to the bottom, to rationalize the removal of almost any gateway, in the name of attracting a more diverse teaching force.”


Like everyone else I spoke with, Steiner acknowledged that teacher-licensing exams have disparate racial pass rates, and he pointed out significant flaws in the edT.P.A. that, in his mind, could justify New York’s decision to end its use, such as an emphasis on writing about teaching over actual teaching experience. But, ultimately, he said, “you can’t design a test around teaching methods if you can’t agree on what actually counts as effective.” America doesn’t just have a problem with a lack of teachers and a lack of teacher diversity. “We can’t agree on what good teaching is in the first place,” Steiner said. “And that’s something no one will talk about.”

In her finding against New York City, Judge Wood noted that the makers of the LAST never compiled a list of the tasks that teachers are supposed to perform, nor did they try to figure out whether the knowledge tested on the LAST was relevant to those tasks. Although this reasoning is important in court, it seems to miss something fundamental about education. Teachers are not garbagemen or accountants, charged with discrete, concrete duties. Their job is much broader, and more subtle: to fill students’ minds and equip them to venture out into the world.

New York has cycled through at least four licensure exams since the late nineteen-eighties, always eventually dropping them. But it’s not clear that any of these changes have actually improved students’ education. Since the pandemic, New York State has tumbled in the national ranking of performance in reading and math for fourth graders. This past school year, only half of New York City’s third-to-eighth graders achieved proficient reading scores, and among Black and Latino students, that figure was closer to forty per cent. Schaeffer, of FairTest, has come to view teacher-licensing exams as nothing more than performative symbols—something for states and unions to point to in order to prove that teachers actually know something. “They’re like the talisman that you wore around your neck in the Middle Ages to ward off the plague,” he said, paraphrasing an old article about flaws in testing. “The evidence for their efficacy is weak and self-serving.”

Even if states could devise the perfect test for teachers, fewer and fewer people are entering the profession. The pay isn’t great: the Census Bureau reports that teachers make less on average than their peers with the same education level, and teacher pay has fallen over all since 2010. The pandemic made a difficult profession harder: reports of mental-health crises, unmanageable classrooms, and staggering learning loss are everywhere.

All this has primed the field of education for an anti-test moment. “Because of this shortage of teachers, we’re going to have to become more creative about how we identify who could be a good teacher,” Pedro Noguera, the dean of the School of Education at the University of Southern California, said. “Several people over the years, myself included, have been arguing that you can’t simply rely on a test.” Schaeffer described the opposition to testing culture—from licensure exams to student evaluations that affect teachers’ bonuses and performance reviews—as “widespread” within teachers’ colleges.

In recent years, thousands of teachers who failed the LAST have received compensation for damages. Some of these people remained in education—maybe they moved to New Jersey, where testing cutoff scores were lower, or stuck with lower-paying substitute-teacher positions in New York. After a few years in limbo, Wilds-Bethea finally got a guidance-counsellor job at a school—what he had always wanted, anyway. Because of previous litigation, guidance counsellors were considered social-services employees, not teachers, so he was exempt from the LAST requirement and could regain a full-time position with benefits. He had a long career working in New York City public schools and retired in 2016. He lives in Harlem, neighboring some of his former students, in a sun-filled apartment with a terrace covered in plants overlooking City College, where he got his teaching degree. The testing saga didn’t completely derail his career. But he knows plenty of teachers whose lives truly changed: people who lost their houses or their pensions, or who couldn’t afford to put kids through college.

Wilds-Bethea still hasn’t seen any money from the lawsuit; litigation over each individual payout is ongoing. Given that he worked in New York City public schools for many years while the litigation was ongoing, though, the amount is likely to be large. Ultimately, he sees the whole thing as a tragedy. “I think the money could have been much better spent improving our schools,” he said. “That’s kind of painful, too.” He wishes that all those years ago, the city would have granted an exemption to already licensed teachers and avoided the lawsuit, along with the billions it will cost the city. Kids won’t see any of that money, but lawyers will. So far, the plaintiffs have been awarded at least $57.2 million in attorneys’ fees. Sohn, the lead lawyer in the case, defended the need to resolve this dispute in court: “When I started this case, I thought that we could make people do the right thing. And it’s become really clear that we can just make them stop doing the wrong thing,” he said. That’s “an incredible service to our communities.”

Now some of these plaintiffs will have their lives changed once again because of a test. Payouts in the one-to-two-million range are not unheard of. The judgment also gives some plaintiffs a path to restoring their licenses to teach in New York City. These plaintiffs will have the chance to start over, but they may not want to take it. Many of them are well past the age when they might want to begin a new chapter of their career. As one of Wilds-Bethea’s Committee bulletins put it, years ago, “Many of the teachers affected are enthusiastic young people who have come to our profession with a great deal of energy and idealism. They want to do a good job and are being cut off before they even start.” ♦