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CBEST vs CSET: What are the Differences?


In education we are bombarded with state tests, each referred to by a different acronym. Students in California take the CAASPP, the CAST, and the CHSPE to name a few. Then there are college admissions exams, the ACT and SAT. Knowing the difference between these exams can be a challenge in itself.

If you plan on becoming a teacher in California, you’ll also need to familiarize yourself with other acronyms. For example, if you intend to become CLAD-certified to teach English learners, you must pass the CTEL exam. But no matter your subject area, you will also need to know what the CBEST is and what the CSET is, and how those tests relate to getting your credential. 

This guide will help you understand the differences between the two, what’s on each test, and whether or not you need to take both of them to teach a classroom in the state of California.

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Before we get into the fine details of each test, let’s take a look at both the CBEST and CSET to determine what the main differences are.

CBEST stands for the California Basic Educational Skills Test. The State of California wants to ensure that you as a classroom teacher – regardless of your subject area or grade level – possess fundamental skills in mathematics and reading and writing in English. The CBEST measures those basic skills.

CSET stands for the California Subject Examinations for Teachers. Unlike the CBEST, the CSET is not a single, uniform test for all teachers. The CSET measures your competency in a specific subject area – like art, physical education, science, or Spanish – and will, therefore, look different depending on what you plan to teach.

Now let’s look at each test in detail, including the kinds of questions that you can expect on each test and who needs to take them.

CBEST Sections and Requirements

To pass the CBEST,  you will have to complete three sections. You may take them together in one four-hour session, or in four separate one-hour sessions.

Reading. This section contains 50 multiple-choice questions, which require you to read and comprehend information presented in various text passages and tables. The questions will measure these two skills:

  1. Critical Analysis and Evaluation (40% of the questions)
  2. Comprehension and Research (60% of the questions)

Mathematics. This also contains 50 multiple-choice questions, mostly word problems. Here you’ll be assessed on three main skills:

  1. Estimation, Measurement, and Statistical Principles (30% of the questions)
  2. Computation and Problem Solving (35% of the questions)
  3. Numerical and Graphic Relationships (35% of the questions)

Writing. The last section consists of two essay questions, which will require you to:

  1. Write from personal experience on a given topic
  2. Analyze a given statement or situation

Resources are available to help you prepare for the CBEST. But while all teaching credential candidates in California must demonstrate these basic education skills, passing the CBEST is not the only way to do it. Passing a basic skills examination in another state, for example, satisfies California’s requirement. If you take the CSET and pass both the Multiple Subjects and Writing Skills examinations, you can also satisfy the basic skills requirement.

CSET Questions and Requirements

As mentioned, the CSET varies according to the subject matter. In fact, there are 40 different versions of the CSET, assessing competency in subjects from agriculture to writing skills. Each CSET breaks down into multiple subtests that assess different domains or skills within each subject. These tests are a mixture of multiple-choice and constructed-response questions. Both the number of subtests and types of questions vary according to the subject matter, so a one-size-fits-all outline cannot be provided here. However, we can look at a particular subject – physical education –  for example, and see how its CSET is structured.

The CSET certification for physical education is made up of three subtests, which you can take together in one five-hour session, or take in separate sessions lasting one hour and 45 minutes or one hour and 30 minutes each, depending on the subtest.

Subtest one of the Physical Education CSET consists of 40 multiple-choice questions and two short constructed-response questions, assessing two domains:

  1. Growth, Motor Development, and Motor Learning
  2. The Science of Human Movement

Subtest two of the Physical Education CSET consists of 40 multiple-choice questions and two short constructed-response questions, assessing three domains:

  1. The Sociology and Psychology of Human Movement
  2. Movement Concepts and Forms
  3. Assessment and Evaluation Principles

Finally, Subtest three of the Physical Education CSET consists of 40 multiple-choice questions and one extended constructed-response question, assessing two domains:

  1. Professional Foundations
  2. Integration of Concepts

Again, this is only one example. Each CSET test is subject-specific and therefore structured in a way that assesses a subject’s particular domains and skills. Specific CSET information about your area of study can be found here under California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET).

Whether you’re pursuing a single-subject, multiple-subject, or specialist credential, in order to receive a teaching credential in California, you must either take the CSET or complete a subject-matter program at an institution of higher education that’s approved by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC).

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  1. “CBEST” and “CSET,” California Educator Credentialing Assessments…
  2. “Teaching Credentials Requirements,” Commission on Teacher Credentialing

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