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By Stephen Sawchuk
Education programs across 19 states are piloting a performance-based assessment for teacher-candidates that potentially could serve as a common prelicensing measure for new teachers.
Based on a test in use in about 30 education schools in California, the Teacher Performance Assessment includes a "teaching event" requiring teachers to extensively document and submit for review artifacts of their planning, instruction, and ability to assess and respond to student needs.
Five of the states taking part in the work—Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee, and Washington—have committed in legislation to use a performance-based licensing test, and officials have signed memoranda of understanding agreeing to adopt the assessment if it proves to be technically valid and reliable.
Supporters of the initiative see in the work an opportunity to focus on classroom-based effectiveness at the precertification benchmark—an area that has not received much attention as policymakers tackle the tenure-granting and annual evaluation processes.
"Imagine a time two years from now when we can show people, predictably and validly through standardized instrumentation, a teacher who's ready for a placement," said Peter J. McWalters, a consultant for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a project partner.
States' current licensing systems require a dizzying array of standardized tests, most of which gauge content knowledge and pedagogical skills through multiple-choice questions. Only Arkansas, California, and Ohio now use instruments that judge prospective teachers' actual classroom performance.
That landscape is poised to change under the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium, a group of 19 states working with the CCSSO; the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, or AACTE, a Washington-based membership organization; and the Stanford Center for Assessment Learning and Equity, based at Stanford University, to develop an exam embedded in preservice teachers' student-teaching experiences.
State members of the consortium include California, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, in addition to the five "accelerated" states that have signed memos of understanding.
The centerpiece of the new exam consists of a common "capstone teaching event" that all preservice teacher-candidates must complete. The event recalls aspects of the certification process for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Over a three- to five-day period, a teacher must plan and implement an instructional unit, use assessment data to tailor instruction to students who have difficulty mastering the material, and reflect on his or her experience. A 15-minute videotape of the teacher's instruction and other artifacts are scored according to a common guide by university professors and, potentially, other stakeholders, such as deans, school district officials, or master teachers.
To reflect the diversity of offerings in the teacher education world, each institution may customize three other assessments in specialty areas such as technology or the instruction of special populations. The results will be used to provide teacher-candidates with feedback on their performance before the capstone teaching event.
In addition to serving as an initial licensing requirement and providing information that districts can use when making hiring decisions, the exam could help preparation programs improve.
"Once you're finished doing it with a group of students, you get information about where students are encountering weaknesses in the program, and it actually becomes a part of what the faculty grapples with at the end of the year," said Pat A. Wasley, the dean of the college of education at the University of Washington, in Seattle. "We just haven't had that kind of information before."
When multiple stakeholders take part in the scoring, she added, "you can learn collaboratively about how you commonly define high-quality teaching, and at the same time, you can argue about what should be of greatest value."
Plans include linking the exam to professional certification and setting up a national repository of the videotaped teaching events that could be integrated into the preservice curriculum, said Sharon P. Robinson, AACTE's president.
"We will have a national database of productivity measures in programs that are developing the education workforce," she said. If many states ultimately adopt the exam, they could compare information on their graduates, potentially easing issues with license reciprocity, Ms. Wasley said.
Questions of Use
The exam is being piloted in at least three institutions in each of the member states. A pilot year based on a full state sample will begin this fall, and a large-scale field trial will take place in the 2011-12 school year. Among other actions, researchers will examine the pilot data for the relationship of scores to other teacher tests, and to determine whether scores are predictive of student achievement during candidates' first two years of teaching, said Raymond L. Pecheone, the director of the Stanford center.
Experts said that the consortium's success likely will depend as much on the policies that surround the assessment's implementation as it does on its technical quality.
Project partners are still mulling over several aspects of the exam that, if scaled up, might pose challenges. Scoring may have to be changed. Mr. Pecheone envisions a more controlled, possibly regionally based scoring and auditing system to ensure fair and comparable results.
Other experts harbor philosophical concerns. Daniel Goldhaber, a researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Bothell, drew a distinction between policies that seek to use a licensing exam to screen out teachers who appear to be less effective and those that use such exams as a mechanism for improving effectiveness.
In the past, most teacher exams have been shown to be somewhat predictive of classroom performance, but there is less evidence to show that they actually help cultivate better teachers, he said.
"Policymakers don't generally get this distinction," Mr. Goldhaber said. "If there isn't a human-capital value associated with [a performance-based test], it's a very expensive assessment to use to screen out such a small percentage of the workforce."
For Edward Crowe, a senior adviser to the Princeton, N.J.-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation who wrote a recent paper on teacher-training program accountability, the test's mettle will also depend on whether states and preparation programs are willing to use its results to make tough decisions about teacher and program quality.
"If [the assessment] doesn't support accountability for individual teachers, if they're going to report 96 percent pass rates, and if weak programs in these states are not forced out of business," Mr. Crowe said, "then I would say we haven't gotten anything better from this."
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
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