Now it's the teachers who have to take the tests. Why? To the state, it's a matter of principle: Teachers who don't know the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic shouldn't be in the classroom.
That's the message of a test just installed in California. Prospective teachers, teacher aides, and school administrators - as well as current teachers who want to change subjects - have to make a passing grade.
To some, it's a development that promises more professionalism among teachers. Others see it as another slap in the face for a battered profession.
New teachers here are facing this test because evidence of teacher incompetence in spelling, grammar, and math has stirred up public criticism. California joins some 20 states that either test new teachers for basic skills or intend to start doing so.
A key incident that set the stage for requiring such a test occurred in 1978, when Lemon Grove Unified School District near San Diego tested its teachers for basic skills and found they scored, on the average, at the eighth-grade level in spelling and grammar and at the seventh grade level in math.
Soon afterward, Los Angeles Unified School District tested its incoming teachers for basic English proficiency. Some 13 percent failed.
State Sen. Gary Hart (D) was already taking heat for a bill he had sponsored requiring students to pass proficiency tests before graduating from high school. Minority groups especially complained that some of the burden the tests placed on students belonged on the teachers.
Senator Hart agreed and drew up the bill requiring teachers to pass muster on a written test, too. It was up to new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to arbitrarily set the passing score.
A complication that sample tests point to is that, wherever the passing score is set, the test will screen out a disproportionate number of ethnic minority applicants. This could make it even harder to find bilingual teachers, much in demand here.
Other states have come to require tests in much the same way. It's a trend that began with Louisiana in 1977 and spread throughout the 14 states of the South over the next few years - prodded along by the Southern Region Education Board, a group of political leaders and educators.
''In all 50 states, we're certifying teachers that can't communicate in standard English,'' says J. T. Sandefur, dean of education at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, and a promoter of testing.
Teachers' unions take the attitude of grudging toleration. The official stance of the National Education Association and its branch, the California Teachers' Association is that the tests are better administered before a would-be teacher enters a college program than after. After a five-year college program to garner a teaching certificate in this state, says Marilyn Russell Bittle, CTA president: ''It's too late.''
Many teachers and teacher union officials argue that tests simply don't say anything about the ability to teach.
Peter Facione, dean of education at California State University, Fullerton, has mixed emotions: ''It's the wrong approach, but . . . those who couldn't pass it probably don't belong in the classroom.''