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Illinois says goodbye to the basic skills test, long a barrier for teacher candidates of color

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
Denis Tangney Jr. / Getty Images

Amid an ongoing teacher shortage, Illinois will scrap a basic skills test that it has long required aspiring teachers to pass but that critics have argued poses a barrier to candidates of color.

Instead, the state will assume that teacher hopefuls will have learned basic skills in their teacher prep programs.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation Wednesday abolishing the test, part of an omnibus education bill sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Decatur.

The new law will free up 246 pending license applications from candidates who had failed to pass the basic skills test, according to the Illinois State Board of Education’s press release. Backers see the law as a way to help alleviate the teacher shortage. Last school year, Illinois started the year with 1,400 unfilled teacher classroom positions.

The law also removes the prohibition on paying student teachers. And it reimburses the cost of one licensing test for educators who teach for a year in certain districts like Chicago that the state considers underfunded, if the General Assembly appropriates funds to do so.

Related: ‘A good start’: There could be some changes coming for Illinois teachers

Illinois has required would-be teachers to pass three exams covering their knowledge in the subject they teach, their classroom practices, and their basic skills in math and reading.

The third exam has proven to be a stumbling block for aspiring teachers of color.

State education chief Carmen Ayala, who has promised to focus her work on the state board on equity, applauded the removal of the test.

“The test of basic skills did not advance teacher effectiveness,” Ayala said. “Rather, it created a financial and practical barrier that prevented highly skilled and passionate potential teachers from beginning their careers in Illinois.”

Related: How diverse are the teachers in your Illinois school district? Find out here.

The Chicago Teachers Union favored abolishing the test, which “disproportionately kept black and Latinx candidates out the profession, at a time when teachers of color are sorely needed,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the union’s political director.

Statewide, 83 percent of teachers are white, a proportion that has dropped only 2 percentage points in the past decade, even as the student body has become more diverse. Black and Hispanic teachers make up about 6% each, and Asian teachers 1.5%. About three in four candidates for teaching positions in the state identifies as white.

In Chicago about 52% of teachers are white. The percentage of black teachers is declining, and the percentage of Latino teachers has climbed slightly in recent years. Black and Latino students make up 37% and 47% percent of Chicago Public Schools students, respectively.

Bills that would abolish the state charter commission and that would allow retired Chicago teachers to work longer as substitutes also await the governor’s signature, but Pritzker has not indicated whether or not he will sign them into law.

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