State sets higher bar with revamped teacher test

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Fewer teacher candidates are expected to pass the state’s revamped assessment of teaching  practice, under new cut scores approved by the state board on Tuesday. But the new test will be short-lived: Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) officials plan to scrap the test altogether when yet another, more comprehensive assessment comes fully online next September. Previously, 97 percent of teacher candidates who took one of the older versions of the Assessment of Professional Teaching (APT) would pass. The rate is expected to drop to 81 percent using the new APT, which was rolled out this fall.

Raising concerns about fairness to teacher candidates, board member Vinni Hall cast the lone vote against the new cut scores for the revamped APT.

“I just thought this was a little disingenuous knowing we were going to eliminate the test eventually,” Hall said after voting on Tuesday during a special board meeting.

Jason Helfer, ISBE’s assistant superintendent for Teacher and Leader Effectiveness, said there was little anybody could do about the short lifespan of the revamped APT – which is taken by prospective teachers during the student teaching phase of their coursework.

“It’s a circumstance of timing,” he said in an interview with Catalyst on Tuesday afternoon. In prior years, different versions of the APT were given to prospective educators based on the grade level they were preparing to teach.

ISBE began revising the APT about two years ago to make it the same for everybody and to align the assessment with the state’s professional teaching standards, which were updated in 2010. Two years ago “is a pretty long time in terms of thinking about potential overlap and what rules need to be in place,” Helfer said.

Meanwhile, the state had approved the implementation of another assessment — an evidence-based review of teacher candidates’ performance called the edTPA – and made it a requirement starting next fall.

While there have been conversations between ISBE staff and faculty in the state’s teacher preparation programs about whether to phase out the APT, no date had been set.  Helfer says he expects to propose a fall 2015 sunset date for the APT at the next regular ISBE meeting in two weeks.

“My reasoning is, well, if the edTPA is assessing many of the same skills and knowledge as the APT, there’s absolutely no reason to have any candidate do both, not only because of redundancy of content but because of the cost,” he said.

Hall had also raised concerns about the financial burden of so many required tests. Apart from the APT, teacher candidates must also pass the TAP, formerly called the Basic Skills Test; and content-area tests in order to obtain their teaching license. Each assessment costs $135.

The edTPA is even more expensive; it’ll cost students $300 have portfolios of their student-teaching performance evaluated as part of that assessment.

Concerns about racial disparities

ISBE had initially cancelled its November meeting, but called for a special meeting on Tuesday in large part to set cut scores for the APT.

That’s because about 1,000 teacher candidates have already taken the new APT, but didn’t know whether they passed because ISBE hadn’t set the cut scores. The expected 81 percent passing rate is based on the results of the first group of 313 candidates who took the APT in September.

Unlike Hall, some board members expressed satisfaction after knowing the new APT is harder than the previous iterations of the assessment. Board member Curt Bradshaw spoke about the need to “raise the bar” for teachers in Illinois, echoing the rhetoric of the broader national push to improve the quality of teacher candidates and preparation programs.

“We clearly want our students to have the most prepared teachers they can possibly have and I think we’re all in favor of the teaching profession being held in the highest esteem possible,” he said.

But board Chairman Gery Chico said the state needs to tread with caution when increasing rigor for prospective educators if it comes at the expense of racial diversity. Blacks and Latinos – who are already disproportionately underrepresented as teachers when compared to public school students in Illinois — fare significantly worse than their white counterparts on the TAP.

ISBE data show that just 31 percent of all teacher candidates who took the TAP between July and September 2014 passed all four sections. But only 13 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of blacks passed, compared to 37 percent of white students.

It’s unclear whether the racial gap will persist with the new APT. ISBE officials were unable to immediately provide passing scores broken down by race or ethnicity on the new assessment.