Teacher candidates to face new performance assessment

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Some students and educators in teacher preparation programs say they were caught off-guard when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) approved a single-source contract two months ago with NCS Pearson Inc. to administer a new performance assessment required for teacher certification. 

Starting in the fall of 2015, teacher candidates must pay the national testing company $300 to evaluate portfolios of their student-teaching performance for a new assessment called the edTPA. The assessment, which is already being used in five states and will come online in another four states during the next two years, sets a national standard to gauge teacher readiness.

ISBE officials say the contract with Pearson is necessary to comply with a state law that requires an evidence-based assessment of teacher effectiveness as part of its certification process by September of 2015. The law did not specify the assessment, but last summer, ISBE chose the edTPA, which was designed by educators at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE).

The edTPA has been field-tested nationally, including in Illinois, and is modeled after the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Pearson’s Evaluation Systems group won the contract to provide the infrastructure to administer the assessment after a request-for-proposals at Stanford University, which owns the assessment.

 “The Board and Superintendent have said that if another product becomes available that meets the criteria, we would certainly evaluate it as well, but at this time the edTPA is the only one of its kind so we had to go through the sole-source process in order to make it available,” said ISBE spokesman Matthew Vanover in an e-mail to Catalyst.

No other vendors spoke out against the single-source contract during ISBE’s meeting in February, nor did any attend a public hearing last week on the contract.

Objections to the assessment

Critics of the state’s decision to use the edTPA say they don’t have major complaints about the assessment itself, which includes a review of a video of the students’ in-class instruction, lesson plans and other work samples. But they worry about the number of high-stakes assessments necessary for licensure. And they don’t understand why scorers hired by the private company, and not university faculty and professors who know the teacher candidates personally, are the ones who will grade portfolios.

“Our objection is that it takes a form of assessment that should be organic and come from the local community of educators, and turns it into something standardized and nationalized,” says Savannah Mirisola-Sullivan, a graduate student in education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “We worry about a conflict of interest, because they’d profit off of our failure.”

Pearson, which also administers the Assessment of Professional Teaching (APT) tests required for Illinois teacher candidates, stands to make at least $2 million annually from administering the edTPA. The five-year contract will cost nothing for ISBE, as teaching candidates will carry the burden of paying fees to Pearson.

A Pearson spokeswoman said she could not comment on the contract and referred questions on the edTPA to SCALE.

Raymond Pecheone, executive director of SCALE, said states have the discretion to allow local faculty to score their own students’ edTPA portfolios – but explained that they would have to use the Pearson platform.

“If they’re willing to step up, it’s the best way to use the assessment,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity for faculty to learn about their candidates’ performance.”

Pecheone said he recognizes that the pushback across the country against the testing industry, and against Pearson in particular. But he assured that the company had no involvement in the decisions made about the design, development, training and other procedures associated with the edTPA.

“Pearson doesn’t fail candidates. The standard setting for the edTPA was done through professional panels of key policy makers and faculty across the country,” said Pecheone.

Individual states are responsible for setting the scores needed to pass the edTPA, which has a maximum score of 75. Professional panels convened by SCALE recommend that states use a maximum cut score of no more than 42 points. Just under 58 percent of teacher candidates who took the assessment during national field-testing last year would have passed at that cut score, although that percentage is expected to rise as teaching programs become more familiar with the assessment.

ISBE sent a survey to university faculty in February for suggestions on scoring bands, and will suggest a required passing score of 35 for the first two years. The state then plans to raise the cut scores during each of the remaining years of the contract, settling on 41 in the 2019-2020 academic year, Vanover wrote in an email.

Public hearing on contract

Last week, Mirisola-Sullivan and other students, as well as professors from the University of Illinois at Chicago and St. Xavier University, voiced their concerns about the edTPA during the public hearing on ISBE’s approval of the single-source contract with Pearson.

Jason Helfer, ISBE’s assistant superintendent for Teacher and Leadership Effectiveness, explained that using the edTPA assessment ensures that “individual scorers are seeing the same thing,” because all scorers receive the same training.

Pearson pays scorers $75 per portfolio. The company provides SCALE-designed training for scorers – who are university faculty at teacher education programs or teachers in the field – as well as technical assistance, and the web-based platform for submission of the assessment.

Although the students got answers to some of their questions at last week’s hearing, they knew it wasn’t the appropriate avenue for the big-picture debate on how or whether the assessment should be administered.

“This is a hearing on the method of source selection,” reminded Adam Alstott, deputy general counsel at the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission, who administered the hearing. “These hearings are not the proper avenue for challenging statutory mandates, agency rulemakings, or […] other state agency business decisions.”

The UIC students, who have vowed to boycott the edTPA, say they will continue to look for ways to challenge the new requirement.

“We know we’re losing the battle,” says Jessica Suarez, an undergraduate student at UIC. “Higher education is under attack. I failed the TAP so many times and have spent so much money taking all these tests. […] The question is, can you afford to become a teacher?”

The edTPA is just one of a series of tests that teacher candidates must pass in order to obtain licensure. The state also requires the Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP) or high scores on the ACT or SAT; a content-area test; and the Assessment of Professional Teaching tests, as well as successful completion of program coursework and other graduation requirements.