Teacher Preparation

Will controversial new tests for teachers make the profession even more overwhelmingly white?

Race may play into how we judge good teaching

Joey Vargas ponders his future as he awaits results of his teacher performance test submission. Passing the test will make him licensed to teach in New York state public schools.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. – Most of the 50-plus teacher hopefuls who crowded into a small atrium at Clarkson University on a Saturday morning in January to hear a panel discussion about the teaching job market and new licensure requirements shared two traits: They were female. And white. About a third were people of color or males. There was one lone African-American man.

They are the picture of – and the problem with – America’s teacher pipeline.

The percentage of white teacher candidates enrolled in traditional preparation programs is nearly triple that of all other racial and ethnic groups combined, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, the number of students from minority groups has eclipsed the number of white students in the country’s public schools — creating a demographic mismatch between teachers and the students they serve.

Related: Teacher prep fails to prepare educators for diversity, child trauma, panel says

Now some teacher educators worry that two new national tests that teachers must pass before they can be licensed will create another roadblock to diversifying the profession. Known as “performance tests,” they are now required in at least a dozen states and in use by more than 600 teacher preparation programs. They cost more money, take more time, and require the teacher aspirants to do more work — all of which could deter low-income and minority teacher candidates who were already faring worse, on average, on the less rigorous state-administered certification tests.

“It’s the wrong direction,” said Lisa Delpit, professor of education at the historically black Southern University in Louisiana, one of several states yet to adopt the new tests. Delpit said many of her students already struggle to pay for teacher certification exams. “They can barely afford [the current tests]” she said. “Adding more things that cost more money is definitely not the answer.”

Catherine Snyder, chair of the department of education at Clarkson University, and a former teacher, said she supports the higher standards, but finds the financial burden they place on students “unfair” and the 60-plus-page instruction manual for the portfolio test “overwhelming” for some students.

The edTPA, the first and most widely used of the tests, debuted formally in 2014. It requires aspiring teachers to create a portfolio of their work, consisting of a series of lesson plans on a single topic taught over the course of a few days, unedited video they take of themselves in the classroom instructing and engaging with students about the lessons, examples of student work, written self-analysis of their teaching practice in response to multiple prompts, and more.*

The second, the Praxis Performance Assessment for Teachers or PPAT, was launched in August 2015 and is in use in just a handful of states. Like the edTPA, it asks for a portfolio submission but it breaks up the submission process into four stages. It also provides feedback after each submission so teacher candidates can improve their craft as they teach.

While these two performance tests provide insight into a student teacher’s skill set, they are not the only cost of entry to the profession. The new tests don’t replace the assortment of tests individual states have in place, they simply add another layer in the licensure process for would-be teachers. Most states have certification exams given on one day to test a teacher’s knowledge of the subject material and pedagogy, which consist of multiple-choice questions and short-essay answers. Proponents say the performance tests are far better measures of a new teacher’s pedagogic skill and will provide a better gauge of a beginning teacher’s potential. Some go as far as to question whether all the tests are still needed.

Educators like Delpit, who see the additional tests as barriers to diversifying the profession, might be heartened that so far no solid data has emerged suggesting that people of color will have a harder time becoming teachers. With only about a third of states mandating the new performance tests, it could be a while before researchers know. But it’s clear the tests add another hurdle.

Related: Data on teacher prep grads will soon lead to consequences for some programs

In a growing number of states, teacher hopefuls can’t complete their undergraduate degree program, or get a license or a job, if they fail some portion of the certification tests. Failure also brings the financial burden of having to stay in school longer and retake those sections of the tests they failed. The new performance tests add $275 to $300 to the more than $300 in fees already charged by most states.

But even for the teacher aspirants of color for whom money isn’t an obstacle, Delpit said there can be a cultural bias if the background and sensitivity of those scoring the exams are different. Delpit said from her past experience at Stanford with one of the forerunners of edTPA, scorers looked for certain traits or behaviors “that ran counter to what good teachers of African-American students typically did.”

She cites the example of two staged videos shown to a class of African-American students in Roxbury, Massachusetts, by one of her former colleagues. The videos had been used as part of an assessor’s or scorer’s training for the Stanford test.

In one, a black male teacher who normally taught in low-income, predominantly African-American schools teaches a lesson on the Civil War to a class of predominantly white, middle-class students assembled just for the purpose of the video. He’s seen conversing with students prior to and during the lesson about their regular schools and their lives.

“His perception was that he was trying to build relationships,” Delpit said. “Everybody who knows about teaching African-American students and low-income students of color knows that’s the first thing they tell you: you have to build relationships with students,” she added. “This was viewed by the assessors as ‘non-instructional time and that he was not focused on the instructional task’.”

Aspiring teachers fill the atrium at Clarkson University Graduate School to hear about job opportunities for educators and the new, higher standards for teacher licensure.

In the second video, a white, male teacher accustomed to teaching in middle-class white schools presides before a similar grouping of students. He gets right to the point of the lesson, divides the class into groups, gives each group an issue to argue, and each individual in a group a role to play before leaving the students to work in groups, while he watches them from the side of the room. The assessors rated him “very highly.” Delpit said, “This is a cultural difference in how teaching is accomplished in different settings.”

In contrast, Delpit said the black students in Roxbury labeled the black teacher as a great and caring teacher because of the interactions he had with students and relationships he was trying to build, and they perceived the white teacher as not caring whether the students learned, because he stood on the side, letting the students talk among themselves.

“The issue is not what’s better teaching, but how the students are perceiving the teachers,” Delpit said. “If students are perceiving the teacher as not caring, they’re not going to do well in his or her class.”

Delpit thinks that instead of adding another test, the profession should reconsider its metrics. In order to prepare teachers to be successful in schools with African-American or other students of color, they should look closely at the characteristics of teachers of color who excel at what they do and find ways to instill those qualities in incoming teachers.

Despite the criticism, the new performance assessment has won praise from other teacher educators. Marvin Lynn, dean of the school of education at Indiana University-South Bend, who served as a consultant for the team that created edTPA, said the tests “really give candidates of color an opportunity to show what they can do.”

The developers of the Praxis performance test said they will be scouring the initial data to see if it “moves the needle” in terms of impact on people of color. “I’m hoping that it does,” said Seth Weiner, executive director for teacher licensure and certification at the Education Testing Service. “If it doesn’t, we have some work to do.”

Lynn said that the performance-based exams are “very demanding” on an intellectual level. If they are used well, they could make the certification more meaningful and achievable for all promising candidates by staying focused on their work in the classroom.

“When the knowledge that they have to display is connected to something real … I think our students are likely to perform better,” he said.

What’s in the Test?

The new national teacher tests boast that they were “developed by educators for educators” and are based on the model used to vet teachers for National Board Certification. That designation has long been considered the gold standard of the teaching profession and is voluntarily pursued by experienced teachers.

The results of the first full year of testing the edTPA were released in September 2015. More than 18,000 portfolios were scored. Nearly 80 percent of those submitting portfolios were white, 5 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 3 percent African-American. The scores ranged from a low of 15 to a maximum of 75, with 42 the recommended national passing score. Seventy-two percent of test takers passed using that cut score.

The average score for white candidates was 45, compared to 44.93 for Hispanics, and 42.59 for African-Americans.

Researchers cautioned against making generalizations across racial and ethnic groups given the small sample sizes. Raymond Pecheone, the executive director of the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, which developed the edTPA, confirmed the data indicates some narrowing of the racial gap across sub-groups.

“Those are encouraging results compared to what you normally find on other kinds of standardized testing,” he said.

He noted that there is no significant gap between the scores of white and Hispanic candidates, and African-Americans teaching in urban settings scored better than white candidates teaching in rural settings, he said.

Teacher prep programs say it costs them more in money, resources and energy to help at-risk students, including international students like Yisai Wang, left, and Yi Wang, successfully meet the high bar posed by performance tests.

If the numbers hold, they represent a significant improvement over the double-digit differences seen between black and white test scores on other teacher licensure tests.

A 2011 study by the Educational Testing Service, designer of the Praxis Performance Assessment for Teachers, found white test takers passed its Praxis I reading, writing and math tests at nearly double the rate of black test takers.

Related: Ready for Day One? Maybe not: What two new reports show about teacher preparation

Yet despite the somewhat promising early results, 24-year-old Joey Vargas said EdTPA almost made him change his mind about becoming a teacher. Vargas, who is Puerto Rican and a New York City native, is the son of two teachers. Among the first wave of aspiring teachers to take the edTPA, he assembled his portfolio while working full time as a student teacher in his senior year at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., and completed it while writing his master’s thesis a full year later. He also worked most nights at a local mall.

“There was no help with it,” said Vargas. “It felt like a stop for me.” The test’s emphasis on writing challenged him. He submitted more than 60 pages of writing, including charts and examples of students’ work, along with audio recordings and two 8-minute video clips. “Written exams are just horrible for me,” he said.

Vargas is currently certified to teach grades 7-12 social studies to at-risk students, but he needs to pass the edTPA to get his license. In February, he’d already been waiting four months for his results. As a precaution, he has expanded his job search to include charter and private schools. They don’t require licensure for new teachers.

There are other concerns about the new exams’ impact on teacher candidates of color. Marsha Francis, who coordinates the edTPA at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, said her students questioned how they would be judged for using phrases or expressions that are distinctive to their community and culture. “Could I be dinged for certain types of vernacular?” they asked. It’s a reasonable question, Francis said, because “there are questions about subjectivity with the scorers.”

With so much riding on the outcome of a single test, Francis said she’s “leery” of tests that could replicate the scoring gaps seen in other high-stakes testing. “I know that allowing students to, in their own words, justify and explain their decisions should help them score better than a multiple choice test,” Francis said, but the possibility for “any type of testing bias is concerning.”

Bias or poor preparation?

Historically, African-Americans and Hispanics have scored lower than their white counterparts on large-scale standardized tests of almost all kinds. Studies of passage rates for first-time takers of the bar exam and step one of the medical licensing exam revealed as much as a 35-point spread between the passage rates of African-Americans and whites; Hispanics fell in the middle.

Matt Pinchinat, who has successfully met all the requirements for licensure and certification, finds himself questioning why so many African-Americans struggle. “Is [it] indicative of what schools they went to or is [it] indicative of something else?” he asked.

It’s time to “take a fresh look at things like testing bias,” said Michael Nettles, senior vice president for policy evaluation and research at the Educational Testing Service. While testing data is not yet available for the Praxis Performance Assessment for Teachers, Nettles said that it would be “very unusual” if it didn’t follow the pattern of other standardized tests.

“African-Americans are still on the bottom of all these tests,” he said. “It’s a huge issue.”

Matt Pinchinat, 21, was among the teacher hopefuls attending the January panel at his college, Clarkson University. His parents are Haitian immigrants, and his father is a teacher. With the exception of some coursework, Pinchinat has met all the requirements for licensure, including scoring at mastery level on the edTPA.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked incredulously when informed that African-Americans score last behind whites and Hispanics on licensure exams and other tests.

Pinchinat said he didn’t perceive “cultural bias” on the edTPA, which requires you to have a “solid grasp” of research-based theories and approaches, he said. “You have to point to and highlight everything that you think you’re doing well so that they know that you know what you’re doing,” he said.

“When you consistently have African-Americans doing poorly, is that indicative of what schools they went to or is that indicative of something else?” he asked. “Am I just some outlier then?”

The designers and proponents of the new performance exams say they hope any racial gaps on the new tests will propel everyone to do better — rather than advocating for lower standards.

There’s a “necessary body of knowledge and skill that a profession has agreed a beginning practitioner needs … like a law license or a medical license or an electrician’s license,” said ETS’s Weiner.

If there is a racial differential in performance that should not automatically lead to lowering standards, said Stanford’s Pecheone. It should “trigger policies to better support and better prepare all candidates regardless of color.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

*Correction: The story has been corrected to clarify the description of the edTPA exam.

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Peggy Barmore

Peggy Barmore is a freelance writer, living in Albany, NY. She is a 2014 graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and holds a… See Archive

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