What if I told you that:
- There is a major national education reform under way, with its origins in California;
- which may result in the creation of a national “bar exam” to enter the teaching profession;
- and yet few in the education community seem to be paying attention to this effort or weighing in on whether it’s worth supporting?
This is the story of the education Teacher Performance Assessment, or edTPA. Even if you follow education issues closely, you may have missed the rapid rise of this new assessment to evaluate prospective teachers. Developed by researchers at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE) and enthusiastically supported by the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) and Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond – who also chairs California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) – the edTPA is now being used in at least 25 states (to varying degree) to determine whether newly trained teachers are ready to set foot in the classroom.
So what exactly is edTPA? That’s not an easy question to answer, actually, unless you are willing to spend some quality time spelunking through obscure corners of state government and university websites. According to San Diego State University, “the edTPA is an updated, national version of the Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT) that was developed by SCALE . . . and is being implemented in partnership with Pearson Education.” The edTPA requires prospective teachers in participating programs to prepare a comprehensive portfolio that includes lesson plans, handouts, “daily reflection notes,” video clips of instruction, and assessment of “whole class assessment” and “analysis of learning of two students,” though I’m not sure what that means. (See slide 10 from this SCALE presentation.) Teacher candidates then upload this portfolio to a database managed by education behemoth Pearson, which then passes the portfolio along to reviewers, also selected by Pearson, comprised of a 50-50 split of college of education faculty and actual classroom teachers. The reviewers score the candidate’s portfolio items according to rubrics that are subject-specific, such as secondary mathematics, early childhood, and even physical education. (See slide 17 here.) It appears that candidates are free to select which lessons they choose to upload, and it’s unclear if there’s any cap on how many times they can retake the exam if they don’t pass. And I’m not sure how much any of this costs; the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) pegs it around $200-$400 per candidate, though I’m not sure who is paying whom for what.
That is what we know about the exam itself. We also know that a number of states have already enacted laws tied to the edTPA. Starting this fall, for example, prospective teachers in New York must pass the edTPA to be licensed, and other states, including Illinois, Washington, Tennessee and Minnesota, are poised to follow in the next two to three years. Here in California, state law already requires that teachers pass a performance assessment – there are three different options that prep programs can choose from – but in typical California fashion, we’ve made the requirement all but meaningless. That’s because all of the assessments are virtually impossible to fail. In fact, in 2012 a whopping 98% of prospective teachers passed the exam – a troubling fact largely obscured in this CTC report. That same report also highlights the fact, “building on work in California, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) and Stanford University have formed a partnership to develop a national teaching performance assessment” – in other words, the edTPA. Given Darling-Hammond’s role in developing edTPA and position chairing CTC, it’s fair to wonder whether the edTPA will soon be replacing California’s existing performance exams (based on the existing passage rates, that might not be a bad thing).
Before getting to what we don’t know about edTPA – and there’s a lot we don’t know – I want to highlight three positive aspects of the assessment: First, the materials promoting the edTPA emphasize a shift in the definition of effective teaching, moving away from mere curriculum delivery to actually improving student learning. That is exactly the right outcomes-based goal that teacher candidates, and the institutes that train them, should focus on. Second, the rapid proliferation of edTPA across multiple states and institutions creates at least the potential for developing a common metric for evaluating the effectiveness of particular programs in training teachers. Third, I’ve spoken to a handful of deans of colleges of education who believe edTPA can help drive improvement within their institutions, in part by revealing which faculty members are most (and least) effective in training candidates. If edTPA can drive accountability across teacher-training programs and faculty, that will be a major reform worth supporting.
That said, there are a number of unanswered questions surrounding edTPA that the education community should be seeking answers to, particularly before enacting policies based on its adoption. Here’s my short list:
- Which is a better long-term predictor of teacher performance: edTPA or data taken during a teacher’s first year in the classroom? According to Sharon Robinson, president of AACTE, the edTPA is designed “to answer the essential question: ‘Is this new teacher ready for the job?’” But I have searched in vain for evidence indicating the edTPA or any of its predecessors are superior to using actual classroom data to make that effectiveness determination. Is there any such research? If not, does SCALE plan to commission any?
- What are the pass rates on the edTPA and will there be a national “cut score”? I actually posed this question to Andrea Whittaker of SCALE at a recent AACTE conference. She answered by first stating that edTPA is in “field testing mode,” then hinted that SCALE would be pushing for a national cut score – while acknowledging that it would be up to individual states to set policies on this. Until we know what the passage rates are, however, it’s impossible to know whether to take edTPA seriously. We do know, however, that last year in California the pass rate on the PACT assessment – the precursor to edTPA – was 98%, with a shocking 94% passing the first time they took the test. If edTPA follows a similar pattern, there is no chance – none – that edTPA will drive any meaningful change in educator preparation, because faculty will rightfully feel free to ignore it. SCALE, perhaps with the help of the Council for Chief State School Officers, needs to show leadership in supporting a single, rigorous common cut-score across states.
- Is the edTPA truly Common Core aligned? Virtually every education vendor claims these days that its product or service is aligned to the Common Core state standards – a claim they seem to think is made true by slapping a sticker that says “Common Core aligned” on the cover of whatever it is they are selling. Likewise, the creators of edTPA claim the assessment is aligned to the Common Core, but how confident can we be in that claim? Consider the following edTPA rubric: “Learning tasks draw on students’ prior academic learning and experience, as well as personal/cultural/community assets.” This appears at least potentially at odds with the (admittedly controversial) guidance from David Coleman, architect of the Common Core, that teachers eliminate prereading activities to focus instead on close readings of actual texts. Of course, one reason it’s hard to determine alignment is that the edTPA rubrics do not appear to be posted anywhere online – why not?
- Whither the role of Pearson in all this? I do not gnash my teeth or rend my garments when the words “for profit” and “education” happen to fall anywhere near each other, nor will I join Diane Ravitch’s black-helicopter-esque bemoaning of the “Pearsonization” of education. But given that Pearson is responsible for selecting the faculty and teachers that actually, you know, grade the edTPA, shouldn’t we know more about how they are selected and trained? And is there a conflict of interest involving Darling-Hammond’s relationship with Pearson? I have no reason to suspect any impropriety and according to the CTC Pearson does not have any direct contract in California. That said, given the Darling-Hammond’s dual roles here, transparency is critical to maintaining the legitimacy of this effort.
I want to believe edTPA will help professionalize the practice of education, improve the quality of our colleges of education, and ensure teachers are well trained and effective. Answering these questions will go a long way toward determining whether my hope is justified or not.
Update: In response to this piece, Dr. Darling-Hammond wrote to EdSource to clarify her relationship to the edTPA, SCALE, and Pearson. “Pearson is the administrative partner for edTPA and I was involved in the original design team for the assessment several years ago. I have no personal financial relationship with Pearson, but because Stanford owns the edTPA I have recused myself from all considerations around the edTPA assessment at the CTC,” she wrote. She further noted that although she does work on some SCALE projects, “the way university research operates, there is no extra money in it for professors above their salary. Stanford professors – at least in the Ed School – are not allowed to earn extra consulting money above their salary for conducting Stanford research projects.” I appreciate the clarification from Dr. Darling-Hammond, which answers my request for transparency around the edTPA.
Benjamin Riley is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports education entrepreneurs. He also currently serves as a commissioner on the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation Commission, the body charged with promulgating new national standards for accreditation of educator-preparation programs.