Reading test bill should be shelved

Jul 29, 2020 | Cal Matters

In summary

Legislation to abolish California’s test of would-be teachers’ ability to teach reading should be deferred in this pandemic-shortened session.

The pandemic-truncated 2020 legislative session, which resumed this week, has no shortage of business to conduct and just a month to do it — unless Gov. Gavin Newsom grants an extension.

Legislative leaders have imposed a tightly restricted schedule of committee hearings, with very limited public input, and asked their members to drop non-essential bills. In other words, they should be doing only what needs to be done and setting aside everything else.

Senate Bill 614 would be a good candidate for deferral, since it proposes to jettison California’s quarter century-old method of testing the readiness of prospective teachers to develop students’ reading skills, and is vague on what, if anything, would replace it.

It’s obvious, or should be, that reading is the portal to all other educational progress. If a youngster cannot comprehend what’s in a textbook on any subject, everything stops. It’s also obvious that an applicant for a teaching credential should demonstrate at least a basic ability to teach reading.

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California law, dating from the mid-1990s, requires almost all prospective teachers to pass a Reading Instruction Competence Assessment (RICA), based on the principle of “phonics” — instruction in letters and letter combinations that make up sounds, thus allowing children to sound out words and later whole sentences and passages.

In California, advocates of phonics had won a protracted duel with those who supported “whole language,” which assumes that reading is a naturally learned skill, much like speaking, and that exposing children to appropriate and interesting reading material will allow it to emerge.

California embraced whole language in the 1970s and 1980s, but nationwide academic tests in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed that the state was very near the bottom among the states in reading proficiency. The backlash resulted in a series of bills signed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the mid-1990s, including the phonics-based RICA.

Last year, state Sen. Susan Rubio, a West Covina Democrat, unveiled a revised version of SB 614 to eliminate RICA. Rubio, citing her 17 years as a teacher, says “it’s something personal to me” and that she wants to “bring stakeholders to the table” to make RICA “up to date on current standards.”

She and her support coalition, led by the California Teachers Association, argue that RICA and phonics have not delivered better reading comprehension and that high RICA failure rates among Black and Latino applicants for credentials have prevented diversification of the state’s teaching corps.

The bill has resided in the Assembly Education Committee for more than a year and has drawn sharp opposition from education reformers.

“SB 614 would exacerbate inequality of access to a quality education by failing to guarantee that every child, particularly disadvantaged children with higher illiteracy rates, have an equitable opportunity to access a basic education, of which reading is a critical skill,” EdVoice wrote in opposition.

Its position is backed by a phalanx of academic experts in reading instruction and, among others, the NAACP. “Parents/caregivers have enough to worry about with respect to education loss during the COVID-19 pandemic without now adding generations of teachers unprepared to teach foundational reading standards to children,” Oakland’s NAACP chapter declared.

We don’t know how long classrooms will be closed or how the threat of pandemic will change education in the future.

Given the long history of the issue and the obvious conflicts, a hurry-up committee meeting with legislators attending remotely and very limited public participation would be a mistake. Something as serious as a fundamental change in reading instruction needs sober and extensive consideration.

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