Want to be a teacher? There’s a new test you need to pass

By Kelan Lyons

As the standardized testing of students dominates public discourse, a new test all teaching candidates must pass to  earn their teaching license in Illinois is causing its own controversy.

“We are concerned about the use of one single, high-stakes assessment for teacher licensure, as opposed to multiple assessments,” said Julie Peters, co-founder of the Illinois Coalition for edTPA Rule Change, an organization that opposes high-stakes assessments for teacher licensing.

As of September 1, all teaching candidates in Illinois must pass the edTPA, or the Education Teacher Performance Assessment, a multi-stage assessment that has replaced the pen-and-paper standardized test formerly required of prospective teachers. Critics have raised concerns about the scoring of the assessment, the potential impact on minority teaching candidates and the privacy rights of children in the teaching candidate’s classroom.

Fred Klonsky, a retired 30-year teaching veteran, questions the validity of the  recently released 2014 Education Teacher Performance Assessment administrative report.

“No one should take seriously a study someone does of themselves,” Klonsky said. “It violates the most basic rules of academic research.”

Klonsky notes an inherent conflict of interest: three of the five researchers were members of SCALE, the Stanford University group that developed the assessment, and one was a graduate student at Stanford.

The researchers found that, nationally, 72 percent of candidates passed the test.

Teaching candidates submit their edTPA portfolios and a $300 fee to Pearson, an educational assessment corporation.

The portfolio must include lesson plans in the teaching candidate’s subject area; a 20-minute video of themselves teaching according to their lesson plan; and analyses of student work and the classroom’s strengths and weaknesses.

One teaching candidate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the edTPA a “distraction” from his student teaching experience. The candidate asked that his name not be used because he has not yet passed the assessment and obtained his license.

“There’s really not much of a substitute for actually getting out there and practicing,” he said. The candidate said he has  tried to focus on his students’ needs during his four months of student teaching, but “In the back of your head, you have to prepare this mammoth portfolio.”

Good preparation?

“It’s not an easy project. It’s a time-consuming project, but we’re finding it’s helping our candidates,” said Elisa Palmer, edTPA coordinator for Illinois State University.

Amee Adkins, senior associate dean at the College of Education at ISU, said the edTPA evaluation process prepares teachers for the classroom evaluations they’ll undergo periodically each school year.

“The framework is very similar to the kind of evaluation process teachers experience [when teaching preschool through 12th grade],” said Adkins.

Compared to education departments across Illinois, ISU is ahead of the game. State agencies asked the school to pilot the program in 2010, after the Illinois State Board of Education announced the edTPA would replace the Assessment of Professional Teaching after September 1, 2015.

Adkins said the five years has given her department the time to learn how to teach candidates how to exhibit the criteria measured by the assessment.

“People are skeptical because they haven’t been very involved. They’re nervous,” said Adkins.

But Alison Dover, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, is one of the skeptics.

“We’ve had to really cater some of our preparation to the specific demands of edTPA,” said Dover. Dover said some of her candidates are submitting portfolios before finishing their student teaching, because of the four weeks it takes Pearson to grade the assessment.

Adkins said the concern of “teaching to the test” is legitimate at the beginning of edTPA adoption, but said she feels her department now fully supports teaching candidates without sacrificing classroom time.

Julie Peters, of the Illinois Coalition for edTPA Rule Change, said she’s concerned about the videotaping included in the portfolios.

“Even though student teachers sign forms pledging that they will not post videos to social media, the videos are on social media with hundreds of views,” Peters said.

A simple YouTube search reveals that it is possible to find such videos online.

Rachel Lessem, parent of a 5th-grader at Pritzker Elementary, did not sign the consent form her daughter brought home on October 20. Lesser said she ultimately decided to not allow her daughter to be videotaped for her student teacher’s portfolio because Pearson is an “educational industrial complex. We feed so much money to Pearson for standardized tests.”

Lessem also said she was uncomfortable allowing Pearson to use her daughter’s image and schoolwork to “develop products, which they will then profit on.”

Bias in scoring?

Peters and Dover also have concerns about evaluators’ scoring of potential teachers of color. Scorers must have expertise in the teaching candidate’s subject area and must have worked with prospective teachers within the last five years, according to Pearson.

But, said Peters, “If a scorer is not familiar with the community or the culture of the school, it’s possible that the bias could enter into the scoring in ways that can’t be measured.”

Fears of bias are already a concern in Illinois, where minority teaching candidates have markedly lower pass rates on another standardized test required for prospective teachers. Between January 1 and December 31, 2014, 38 percent of white teaching candidates passed the Test of Academic Proficiency, according to data released by the Illinois State Board of Education, compared to just 15 percent of blackand 17 percent of Hispanic teaching candidates.

“Many of us are very concerned about the equity issues,” said Dover.

The recent report on edTPA evaluated results for around 18,000 teaching candidates from across the U.S. — and almost 80 percent of them were white.

The lack of teachers of color is especially apparent in Chicago, where only 23% and 19% of CPS teachers are black and Hispanic, respectively, according to the CPS website.

Klonsky, the retired teacher, said edTPA “bypasses the important relationship between the mentee and mentor” in that it puts more emphasis on the teaching candidates’ test portfolio and single videotaped class instruction, rather than on the dynamic between the student teacher and his or her mentor, who has seen them in action during their student teaching.

“EdTPA says that relationship doesn’t matter,” Klonsky said. “What matters is someone taking a video of you. You send that video to someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know the classroom, doesn’t know the kids, and doesn’t know the context.”

Klonsky also said the proponents of edTPA have a vested interest in the test.

“They’re hucksters. They’re selling a program,” Klonsky said.

Amee Adkins participated in a 2012 conference hosted by SCALE and in a 2013 Webinar hosted by SCALE and others. Elisa Palmer, also from ISU, is paid in the spring by Pearson to score edTPA assessments.

Palmer said she fills out requests directed to ISU to get permission to score the edTPA portfolios.

Adkins said edTPA gives Illinois schools the knowledge that new teachers have each passed the same test and met the same qualifications.

“They will know that when they have a newly licensed candidate that they have met that threshold of practice,” Adkins said.

Despite the controversy, Dover said, “the debate over what makes an effective teacher is a really good thing for education[But] the idea that we are spending significant time and resources preparing for edTPA, I don’t know how good that is.”

A November 10 hearing is scheduled in Springfield to discuss the use of edTPA as a licensure condition.

Photo at top: All teaching candidates must now pass an assessment before they can become licensed teachers in Illinois (US Department of Education)