Responding to concerns that admissions tests help keep teachers of color out of the classroom, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law Wednesday to ease requirements for teacher preparation programs.

State officials hope the move will grow and diversify the pool of public-school educators in Washington.

Starting this summer, students aspiring to enroll in teacher-preparation programs — which are hosted through community colleges and universities — will no longer have to earn a minimum score on the state’s mandatory basic skills exam called the WEST-B.

The state first implemented the requirement for prep-program applicants in the early aughts, in an effort to improve teacher quality.

But in the years that followed, the mandate had another effect — an additional barrier to teaching for underrepresented populations. People of color fail the three-part exam at higher rates than white test takers, according to a recent report from the Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB).

The disparity is especially stark among Hispanic and Latino test-takers, who cumulatively pass all three parts of the exam at a rate of 64% compared to 90% of white test-takers.

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That’s particularly important because an analysis by The Seattle Times and The Columbian in Vancouver found that in Washington state, the demographic mismatch between teachers and students is widening. For every 88 Hispanic/Latino students last school year, there was only one Hispanic/Latino teacher. By contrast, the ratio for white students to teachers is 11-to-1.

Decades worth of research show students of color benefit academically and socially from having a teacher who shares their race or ethnicity.

“When we think about the ability to prepare for certain tests, access and affordability, I think they very much mirror some of the issues that surround the SATs or other college entry tests,” said Alexandra Manuel, executive director of the PESB, which requested the bill. 

Some questions on the exam — which covers math, reading and writing — assume that the test-taker grew up in the context of the American school system, said Tariq Akmal, who chairs the department of teaching and learning at Washington State University.

“This test has nothing to do with whether you’re a good teacher,” said Akmal. “We were looking at students with above a 3.0 in college and still having trouble passing the test.”

Many students end up re-taking the exam — sometimes more than a dozen times, Akmal has heard, at great financial cost (they can cost up to $225 to take each time). But many also end up discouraged and abandon the career path altogether.

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And what about the argument for quality control?

The WEST-B is still required, said Manuel. Changing the law will encourage teacher preparation programs to consider the score like an SAT test — just one part of an application rather than a deal-breaker. A student’s performance on the exam will also help programs assess where additional training and classes are necessary.

Once they’re in the program, students must also take two more assessments before earning their certification. And at WSU and other institutions, passing the WEST-B has never meant automatic entry to the teaching program.

“There are moms and dads out in Eastern Washington who want to enter teaching but haven’t taken Algebra 2 recently,” said Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, the bill’s primary sponsor. “If someone does poorly, they will be weeded out of the programs if they’re not applying themselves,” he added.