Higher Education

New way of testing rookie teachers could be a game changer

Those of us who prepare teachers for the classroom find ourselves at the center of a national conversation about teacher preparation and “effectiveness,” as well as how to measure and improve student achievement. In each of these cases, students’ standardized test scores are the central metric. And now, federal and state policymakers have begun to use student test scores to evaluate teacher education programs.

Marcy Singer-Gabella

Without question, teacher education programs should be genuinely concerned with their graduates’ impact on student learning and achievement. However, using student test scores to measure program effectiveness is both inappropriate and unhelpful. There are significant challenges—substantive and logistical—to accurately linking student scores to preparing institutions and interpreting what they mean. And even if these were solved, it is extremely difficult to control for the variation in the K-12 schools where graduates end up teaching.

Most crucially, students’ standardized test scores offer little information with which to improve teacher preparation. In my role as a teacher-educator, such information is critical to the task of preparing teachers who will succeed and stay in the profession. That’s why the edTPA, recently field-tested with thousands of soon-to-be teachers, could be such a game changer. It is a multiple-measure assessment process, developed by Stanford University researchers, that seeks to answer the all-important question, “Is a new teacher ready for the job?”

The consortium of universities and state policy organizations behind the edTPA has stepped up to the challenge of developing a valid and reliable measure of novice teacher performance that provides not only a window on teacher-candidates’ future effectiveness, but also an externally recognized benchmark and rich data on candidate progress.

The model, which traces its lineage to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards portfolio assessment, builds on earlier work by teachers and teacher-educators in California to create a robust tool for certifying effective teaching practice. The resulting sense of ownership and alignment with core values has been key to the model’s broad appeal among teacher-educators and their school-based partners.

In fact, teacher-educators in 24 states and the District of Columbia have come to see the edTPA as both a credible measure of important knowledge and skills, and as a tool to support program renewal. Faculty from the eight Tennessee universities that participated in the field test report that working with this assessment has led to more focused and fruitful conversations about aims for candidates and how to achieve them. Specifically, it has provided shared language and images of sound teaching practices, and what it looks like to learn them. While edTPA does not measure everything we want new teachers to know, it spotlights a core of practice that is essential to good teaching.

At my own institution, where we have used edTPA data to revise coursework, we are finding visible differences in our graduates’ readiness to teach. We believe that the assessment has had a positive impact largely because of its emphasis from start to finish on K-12 learners.

First, the assessment structure requires candidates to align standards, goals, activities and assessments with diverse learners’ development, interests and needs.

Second, the assessment presses candidates to discern evidence of, and describe patterns in, students’ evolving understandings throughout an instructional sequence—so candidates have to make sure that they glean information about each student in each lesson.

Third, the assessment prompts candidates to use the insights they are gathering about students to determine the very next move, not just for the whole group but also for individuals.

Our early work with the edTPA prototype surfaced problems in candidates’ efforts to analyze student work systematically and give students usable feedback. In response, we have increased attention to these areas in coursework and field assignments. Recent results suggest that our candidates are improving.

We are not the only ones who find that our candidates actually do a better job of teaching for having been through the edTPA process. According to feedback from principals and teachers, our candidates are better prepared and more skilled. Our graduates themselves report that the assessment process has helped them develop the habits of mind and routines for planning, assessing and adjusting instruction that allow them to succeed and keep learning as they teach. By comparison, the teacher evaluation systems in their districts are “a piece of cake,” as one graduate has said.

Indeed, this model is not simple; some parts have felt grueling. So what has compelled us to stick with it?

First, what makes the assessment tough is what makes it potent: it examines and supports candidates’ abilities to do what teaching takes—with real learners, in real time. Second, in providing a common language and working vision of good practice, the edTPA links us to a network of smart and committed educators from across the country, working on the shared challenge of enabling teachers to serve all learners well.

Marcy Singer-Gabella is a professor of the practice of education and associate chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

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