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Benjamin Riley

Benjamin Riley

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.


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  1. Gary Ravani 4 years ago4 years ago

    It's hard to express just how valuable Mr. Riley's opinions about education really are. After all, we all can appreciate how much education expertise attorneys have demonstrated over time. Let's see now. There was Kline, a former AG, in New York who showed just what he could do raising test scores in that city's schools. All that information that came out about the scores really rising because Kline's Ed Dept lowered cut scores on … Read More

    It’s hard to express just how valuable Mr. Riley’s opinions about education really are. After all, we all can appreciate how much education expertise attorneys have demonstrated over time. Let’s see now. There was Kline, a former AG, in New York who showed just what he could do raising test scores in that city’s schools. All that information that came out about the scores really rising because Kline’s Ed Dept lowered cut scores on the tests was just quibbling (in my opinion). And then there was Bersin, the former AG who took over San Diego’s schools. He managed to get out of town before the tar and feathers caught up with him, and that must count for something!

    It must be mentioned that Mr. Riley was able to impugn the reputation of Linda Darling-Hammond and fling a gratuitous insult at Diane Ravitch within a few lines and that’s saying something. Must be a skill learned while taking some of those attorney’s ethics courses. They do have those, don’t they?

    Anyway, you have to be impressed with Riley’s strong emphasis on “accountability” and “transparency.” For example, let’s consider his employer, New Schools Venture Fund, a self-described “philanthropic” organization: i.e., a “charity.” The “Charity Navigator, a pretty well recognized evaluator of philanthropic organizations, gives New Schools Venture Fund a rating of 51.6 out of a possible score of 70. That’s 74%, or a D in my old grading book. And the major “ding” cited for this low grade by the Charity Navigator: the lack of public availability of “audited financial statements.” So there’s “accountability” (D) and “transparency” (no audits) for you. Must be definitions of those things you learn when you’re an attorney. Or something like that.

  2. Paul 4 years ago4 years ago

    El, your comments are right on the money. There are mechanisns by which unsuccessful teacher credential candidates are counseled out. This happens long before candidates would complete the TPA. (Completion is the operative word, as TPA tasks are embedded in some programs.) I will look up the specific CTC document, which advises program sponsors about their responsibility to monitor candidates. The author of the article should use a larger denominator: instead of taking (successful TPA completers) / … Read More

    El, your comments are right on the money.

    There are mechanisns by which unsuccessful teacher credential candidates are counseled out. This happens long before candidates would complete the TPA. (Completion is the operative word, as TPA tasks are embedded in some programs.) I will look up the specific CTC document, which advises program sponsors about their responsibility to monitor candidates.

    The author of the article should use a larger denominator: instead of taking (successful TPA completers) / (TPA completers), he should take (successful TPA completers) / (all credential program entrants). The truth is that we don’t know how many candidates leave teacher preparation programs before completing the TPA.

    The TPA pass rate that the author uses comes from the CTC, and it suffers from the same limitations as the CTC’s (post-BTSA only) teacher attrition rate. (Where the CTC overestimates the TPA pass rate, it underestimates the teacher attrition rate. Amusingly, the CTC calculates an attrition rate far below the range that the author mentions in his comment.)

    The author has also misunderstood how California’s existing TPA is evaluated. Candidates must show that they have analyzed student work for evidence of learning and reflected on why the desired learning took place or why it didn’t (with suggestions for follow-up and improvement). Even if the teacher candidate’s students perform poorly on the assessments provided by the candidate, the candidate can still pass the TPA. Incumbent teachers struggle to produce learning ‘on call’; new teachers shouldn’t (and aren’t) expected to do so.

    The author’s comment that “inadequate preparation” accounts for the high rate of teacher attrition is hogwash. Study after study has documented the reasons why teachers leave. We find, time and time again, that working conditions, relationship with the principal, and economics drive the decision to stay or to leave. How a pre-service teacher test could possibly mitigate these concerns is beyond me.

    I think it’s the author, not the test creators and tests sponsors, who believes that it’s possible for 100% of teachers to be ‘above average’.

  3. DeniseR 4 years ago4 years ago

    I have to laugh at the notion that a test can tell if a person is ready to "enter" the classroom. I started as a substitute teacher and was in over 200 different K-8 classrooms. I've had 8 different classes that I can call mine. Each and every class is different. None of my 8 classes were the same (even when I looped with my 4th graders to 5th … Read More

    I have to laugh at the notion that a test can tell if a person is ready to “enter” the classroom. I started as a substitute teacher and was in over 200 different K-8 classrooms. I’ve had 8 different classes that I can call mine. Each and every class is different. None of my 8 classes were the same (even when I looped with my 4th graders to 5th grade). None of the 200 classrooms I subbed in were the same. No test can measure readiness for being a classroom teacher.

  4. Ben Riley 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thanks to everyone for commenting. A few quick replies: -- Karen, I completely agree that our state-based system of teacher licensing poses all sorts of barriers, including those you highlight. A few years ago, President Obama proposed using federal funds to support consortia of states that would create a portable, "master teacher" license (see page 11 of http://www.ed.gov/sites/default/files/our-future-our-teachers.pdf). Never really gained traction, unfortunately. -- el, it's possible that virtually every teacher taking every performance assessment at every … Read More

    Thanks to everyone for commenting. A few quick replies:

    — Karen, I completely agree that our state-based system of teacher licensing poses all sorts of barriers, including those you highlight. A few years ago, President Obama proposed using federal funds to support consortia of states that would create a portable, “master teacher” license (see page 11 of http://www.ed.gov/sites/default/files/our-future-our-teachers.pdf). Never really gained traction, unfortunately.

    — el, it’s possible that virtually every teacher taking every performance assessment at every educator program in California is well prepared, and that prospective teachers who cannot pass the assessment bow out beforehand. If there’s any data to support that claim, however, I’m not aware of it. There is data, both nationally and California-specific, that shows that between 25-50% of teachers leave within the first four years of practice — I believe inadequate preparation is a key (but not sole) factor driving this unacceptable turnover. I think it’s also worth noting that 94% of candidates pass the PACT the very first time they take it; compare that to California’s bar exam, which has a first-time passage rate of 60%. Do you think California’s education schools are that superior to its law schools?

    — BEB, I was just noting the breadth of subjects covered by edTPA, lest anyone think it was a single, comprehensive test. I think the subject-specificity of the assessment is (potentially) one of its virtues.

  5. BEB 4 years ago4 years ago

    What do you mean..."even physical education." Let's get down to basics: PE is not simply throwing out the ball at recess anymore; it's a combination of athletics, sports, and kinesiology - a understanding for a long and healthy life style; kids are getting fat and sick and need to understand the underpinning of good health; just as we need to understand history for an underpinning of possible future decisions. Read More

    What do you mean…”even physical education.” Let’s get down to basics: PE is not simply throwing out the ball at recess anymore; it’s a combination of athletics, sports, and kinesiology – a understanding for a long and healthy life style; kids are getting fat and sick and need to understand the underpinning of good health; just as we need to understand history for an underpinning of possible future decisions.

    Replies

    • Richard Moore 4 years ago4 years ago

      And look how well it is working! Have we ever seen so many skinny, athletic kids?

      • Gary Ravani 4 years ago4 years ago

        Richard: A lot of people don’t read much. Want to blame that on librarians?

      • SB24 3 years ago3 years ago

        I am a physical educator and BEB above is right. I would also like to ask Richard Moore where the parents are in this?? It isnt the physical educators fault that the students’s parents let them go home and sit on the couch playing x box and eating chips when they should be outside participating in some kind of physical activity.

  6. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    Although I don't want to make light of the importance of creating rigorous and effective assessments, I find it fascinating that the same group of people who think it's possible for teachers to get every student to 100% proficiency are appalled! - and find it as clear evidence of a lack of rigor or value to the assessment - when teachers, a group significantly more capable and motivated than a typical public school student - … Read More

    Although I don’t want to make light of the importance of creating rigorous and effective assessments, I find it fascinating that the same group of people who think it’s possible for teachers to get every student to 100% proficiency are appalled! – and find it as clear evidence of a lack of rigor or value to the assessment – when teachers, a group significantly more capable and motivated than a typical public school student – get 98% proficiency on their exam.

    It just goes to show that if students actually achieved 100% proficiency, as demanded by law, no one would say, “Hooray, our teachers are teaching brilliantly and our students are learning!” but instead declare it was evidence that the test was worthless or too easy.

    Might we entertain… even for a split second! – the possibility that teachers who take this assessment are well-prepared… and that it might even be the case that many people who might attempt it realize in advance that they are not prepared enough to get a good score, and bow out beforehand?

    Ha ha ha, what was I thinking? Legislators and education reformers didn’t take statistics in school, and no one will be satisfied until all of our kids, and all of our teachers, are far above average.

  7. Karen McGarry 4 years ago4 years ago

    Authentic assessment is tricky on many levels and the new standards and testing mentioned here seem to muddy the waters instead of clearing things up. Assessment of performance and credential requirements are frustrating especially for teachers, such as myself, move between states and must continually be re-tested and pay large sums of money to teach in any state in the US. In looking for models, I can share the experience I had in OH where they … Read More

    Authentic assessment is tricky on many levels and the new standards and testing mentioned here seem to muddy the waters instead of clearing things up. Assessment of performance and credential requirements are frustrating especially for teachers, such as myself, move between states and must continually be re-tested and pay large sums of money to teach in any state in the US.

    In looking for models, I can share the experience I had in OH where they implemented a residency license which tracks performance over a 4 year period with rigorous and genuine reflection built into the system. Unfortunately, one cannot complete the requirements if they leave the state – the license can only be tracked in OH based schools over the 4 years – a glaring oversight in planning.

    Just as in any profession, the first years are usually the best as far as performance is concerned so it is no surprise the pass rate mentioned in the exam above. That said, there seems a need for better clarification and information for teachers if is process becomes a national practice. And if it does become a national requirement, will this change the need for state-to-state re-licensing?

    Thanks for bRinging this to light! KMcG

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