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Minnesota, 24 other states to test new assessments of teachers-to-be

Soon, a sharp number two pencil won't be the only tool teachers need to pass state licensure tests.

To earn a teaching license in most states, candidates must pass a handful of exams — largely multiple-choice — that test basic skills and knowledge of specific subjects. Some states also include tests that focus on teaching strategies. One state, Montana, requires no tests at all, just graduation from a teaching program.

This pathway to the classroom has long been called into question. Now, 25 states — including Minnesota — are preparing to test a brand-new assessment that will judge teachers-to-be on how they work with real students. As policymakers and reformers across the country push to make America’s teaching force more effective, developers of the so-called Teacher Performance Assessment hope it will provide a much-needed overhaul to the process of certifying who’s ready to take charge of a classroom.

Sharon Robinsonall4ed.orgSharon Robinson

“The testing technology that is widely used today just can’t get at what is really the fundamental question of: ‘Can the person actually teach?’ ” said Sharon Robinson, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which is working with Pearson Education to design and analyze the new assessment. “We can give a number of different tests about what they know.” But, she said, the ambition now “is to get an assessment that can actually document the candidate’s ability to teach.”

This spring, more than 10,000 teachers-in-training across 25 states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota, are participating in a field-test of the Teacher Performance Assessment. Candidates will be followed through a classroom lesson over the course of a few days, complete with detailed pre-lesson plans from teacher candidates, in-class video, and post-lesson reflection.

Aspiring teachers will be graded on a scale of 1 to 5 by national reviewers, who will look for evidence of student learning. Developers of the assessment recommend making the lowest passing score a 3, but states will be free to set their own passing mark.

Voluntary in most places

Right now, participation in the field-test is voluntary in most places, although some colleges and universities are using it as a requirement for program completion. Minnesota and Washington state will mandate the assessment starting in 2013, and New York will use it for certification beginning on May 1, 2014. Other states are deciding whether to use it as part of training programs or as a certification test.

(The laws concerning Minnesota’s basic skills exam for teachers have changed in each of the last two years. The legislation will not change the state’s adoption of the new assessment discussed in this story.)

The new assessment method draws heavily on the work of Ray Pecheone, director of the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity and an expert on teacher licensure. Pecheone’s work across the country in evaluating already-certified teachers has been “streamlined,” he said, in the new effort. In his original model, teachers had to document two weeks of work and videotape themselves for an hour in the classroom. The new assessment looks at three to five days’ worth of work and requires just 10 to 15 minutes of video.

Much of the new assessment centers on written lesson plans and reflections from the teachers, something Robinson thinks gives it an edge.

“These candidates have to be able to write, to communicate in clear terms their ideas, their intentions,” Robinson said. “This is a much more powerful demonstration of literacy skills than any multiple-choice test will be.”

Dissatisfaction with current tests

Traditional certification exams have been criticized for their format and cost, as well as for how easy they are to pass. There’s scant research to suggest that current tests are useful in screening for effective teachers. In many states, students take all or part of the test before even enrolling in teacher preparation programs.

Sandi Jacbosnctq.orgSandi Jacobs

“There’s pretty widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of tests,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a nonprofit that advocates for reforms to the teaching profession. “There are two categories — content tests and pedagogy tests. The general feeling is that on neither side do they tend to be very rigorous.”

The push for a new assessment is part of a bigger effort in recent years to increase the number of effective teachers. Advocates like the NCTQ and education officials, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have been clamoring for stronger teacher training programs, seeking improvements in who is accepted, how difficult courses are and how many people pass certification exams. Although the Obama administration isn’t involved in the development of the Teacher Performance Assessment, Duncan has criticized teacher certification tests in the past, saying they aren’t meaningful or useful.

High pass rates, expensive tests

Cut-scores, or the scores required to pass these tests, are often set well below averages, leading to extraordinarily high pass rates. A 2010 analysis by the NCTQ found that nearly all states set the bar so low that even teacher candidates who scored in the 16th percentile would receive their certification.

And the tests are often expensive. To earn certification in Florida, for example, a teacher candidate must pay $480 or more for tests. The new assessment is designed to keep costs for teacher candidates under $300. Robinson envisions the new performance assessment replacing current tests, saving money for teacher candidates and avoiding the need for teachers to re-earn certification in other states if they move. The new performance assessment scores will be accepted across all participating states.

Pearson executives, however, said they believed the new assessment could supplement current exams, rather than supplant them. Pearson’s North American Education division, whose operating profits last year exceeded $760 million, is the company’s largest, and it stands to gain if the old exams aren’t replaced. It now supplies 17 states with customized tests for teacher certification.

“There are some things that can be measured with paper-and-pencil tests and computer- administered tests,” said Bill Gorth, president of Pearson’s evaluation systems group. “I’m not convinced that one type of assessment is the right way of doing it. None of them handle all of the different dimensions a teacher brings to the job.”

Amee Adkins, an associate dean in the College of Education at Illinois State University, said she has heard criticism that a college was teaching to the test if it changed the training program’s focus based on the assessment. But she dismisses the critique. “If it’s a good test, absolutely you want to teach to it,” she said. 

Watching for pass/fail rate

How hard will it be to pass the new assessment? Pecheone expects to see a failure rate of between 10 and 20 percent during field-testing, which he thinks will eventually level off below 10 percent.

Jacobs cautioned states not to sign on to the new assessment until there’s evidence the test is not so easy that anyone can pass it. She cited performance assessment programs in Ohio and Arkansas that have near-perfect passing rates. “What’s the point of putting millions of dollars into something that 99 percent of the people pass?” she asked.

The story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Correction: This story contains a correction on Ray Pecheone’s affiliation and job title.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/09/2012 - 12:42 pm.

    Why not have a test administered at the time of graduation from college with a teaching degree? Perhaps it would force a little accountability onto the colleges that are producing teachers that aren’t qualified.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/09/2012 - 06:43 pm.

    Testing new teachers is counterproductive

    Neal Rovick has a point. Testing someone at the time of graduation – or making passing the test a condition of graduation – would go a long way toward forcing some accountability onto colleges and universities that are graduating candidates unable to pass the exam.

    Beyond that, however, is a fairly simple truth. Testing new teachers for teaching performance is likely to be an exercise in futility. How many student drivers are genuinely proficient the first time they get behind the wheel? How many fledgling engineers make no mistakes on their early projects?

    In other words, if experience matters at all, in any field, then it matters when dealing with children, and especially when that “dealing” involves persuading those children that what’s being presented is of some value to them, and therefore merits their time and effort and attention. New teachers lack what frequently is a significant part of a successful teacher’s expertise – experience.

    I’d argue further that entrusting this sort of evaluation to a private, for-profit company is an invitation to abuse, both intellectual and fiscal.

    If such testing is to have any genuine value (and I’m skeptical about that), I’d take Neal Rovick’s idea one step farther by suggesting that the test ought not to be administered until the teacher in question has had an opportunity to hone their teaching skills and knowledge base over some period of time. My own thought is that, if such a test is going to be administered, it ought to be done in conjunction with other evaluations done at roughly the same time, that time being the point where a school’s administrators decide whether or not the teacher in question has developed enough promise and skills to deserve a tenured appointment. New teachers are typically not especially good – it’s a job that requires not just intellect, but interpersonal skill, which takes time to develop. Administering such a test as someone is just beginning a potential career seems almost sadistic. Give the person two or three years to get a feel for the job and its requirements.

    On the other hand, if, as public education critics currently advocate, we do away with tenure, then this sort of test is, ipso facto, a waste of time, effort and money, no matter what the pass/fail rates might be. Without tenure, a teacher can be dismissed without cause anyway, and at any time that’s convenient for administrators and school boards. There’s little incentive for a teacher to prepare for an evaluation that’s likely to focus on the short term and the superficial.

    So, if you’re going to do this – and I’m not convinced it ought to be done – at least give the candidate two or three years to get a feel for the job, get over the “newness” of being in front of the room, figuratively, if not literally, figure out how to deal with administrative requirements, and a host of other details that teacher education programs almost never mention, and THEN let’s see if the candidate looks like s/he has enough energy and potential to be a long-term, successful teacher.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/09/2012 - 08:10 pm.

    The NY Times has a *totally different* take on these assessments:

    “How much impact any of this will have on teacher quality is debatable. California has had a performance assessment program in place for 10 years. According to Mr. Pecheone, 10 to 15 percent fail to get their license on the first try. When students retake the test, he said, only 1 to 2 percent fail to get a license.”

    The NY Times story also has a radically different take on the video tape: It says the candidates will have to edit their own videos! For the “judging” Pearson is offering $75 to any licensed teacher or administrator to “grade” these applications. That sounds like REAL quality control all right. And what is “The Hechinger Report” ?? Their about page says they are partially funded by the Broad and Gates Foundations.

    More worrying is the use of the National Council on Teacher Quality – unqualified – as a source multiple times. One look at the NCTQ and even the most credulous reporter would have to admit they are a hard right pro commercialization and privatization of education, and anti-teacher union organization.

  4. Submitted by Scott Fenwick on 05/15/2012 - 03:48 pm.

    On the TPAC Assessment and the UMass Protest

    **Rob Levine’s comment in this thread cited a New York Times article that I refer to herein. For background and context to my comments, please see the article at:

    As someone who completed a Master of Education in Instructional Leadership with certification to teach secondary history and social studies at a large state university in Illinois a year ago, I empathize with the folks at UMass. I also stand in solidarity with them. I was volunteered to be a part of this exact same pilot program. It’s called TPAC. I opted out of the pilot program for a number of reasons. Little did I know it was worse than I thought.

    First, the College of Education at my institution had no idea what it was dealing with. A mandate came down from the State and they thought they’d use us teacher trainees as guinea pigs. What they asked of us was unreasonably burdensome. Student teaching is tough. Getting a placement in an environment in which one can experience a true professional apprenticeship is even tougher. And then to ask a student teacher to potentially compromise himself by videotaping the classroom shows a lack of forethought. Schools in Illinois volunteer to accept student teachers. There’s no mandate to take them in. And once schools get a whiff of these TPAC requirements fewer will want to accept student teachers, making it even harder for higher education institutions to find placements for their teacher trainees. As you can see, only fools rush in.

    Sadly, and more broadly, the fact that this TPAC evaluation system even exists reflects the profound distrust and disconnect between government, the public, and (real) education professionals. It’s maddening to think that university professors and administrators – experts with PhDs – are so willing to yield to state bureaucrats and corporate for-profit interests. Do they not realize that this TPAC evaluation system is a step towards standardizing what they teach and how they teach it? Just like K-12 teachers, these folks’ professional judgment is now being compromised as well. Academic freedom is waning.

    Unfortunately, teacher trainees in Illinois soon won’t be as lucky as me. They will have to comply with the State’s mandate. In the near future, these folks (some of whom I happen to teach and advise at the moment) will have to endure the pain (and perhaps shame) of this madness called the TPAC. And then corporate revenues will grow while politicians’ campaign coffers swell. The hijacking of public education is in full swing – now even at the post-secondary level. Those in a position to lead must not just sit there and take it. Shame on them if they do. Here’s to the courage exhibited by the students and teachers at UMass. They, and those like them, should not go down without a fight.

    Scott Fenwick
    Graduate Program Assistant
    Teaching of History
    University of Illinois at Chicago

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