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In Texas, a Tryout For the New Face of Teacher Assessment

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AUSTIN, TEX.--In an annex of a downtown Methodist church here, across the street from the state Capitol, three teachers are comfortably seated at a table with piles of paperback books in front of them.

Across from them sits an interviewer, ready with a stack of prepared questions to ask. A video camera is trained on the entire group.

This is the new face of teacher assessment.

There are no paper-and-pencil tests in sight. In this exercise, the teachers are judged on their ability to hold a productive discussion about the books with their peers.

The activity is one of a series the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has developed to assess middle school teachers of English language arts. The
board plans to launch its system of voluntary certification for accomplished teachers on a limited basis next fall.

All told, the N.B.P.T.S. plans to set standards for excellence in about 30 subject areas for students of all ages and to spend $50 million developing its certification system.

The developers of the first assessment have now created and field-tested three components: a written examination of candidates' knowledge of their field; a portfolio showing their own and students' work from their schools; and performance exercises completed at an "assessment center.'' (See Education Week, Sept. 16, 1992.)

From the results, the national board will decide which exercises to administer to the first candidates for certification.

In the two days the Texas teachers spent at the assessment center here, each completed four exercises. Before arriving, each teacher also had taken the written test and prepared a portfolio.

The process proved to be draining for many teachers, who put in an estimated 150 hours of work to finish the three components.

During a roundtable discussion about the assessments, one woman joked that, by the time she had finished, she felt like she "deserved another degree.''

"It's been a great deal of work,'' Ivey Mossell, who teaches in San Angelo, Tex., agreed in an interview. "But it has been interesting and enlightening.''

Cooperative Discussion

The developers of the assessments--who are based at the University of Pittsburgh and the Connecticut Department of Education--tried to capture the essence of teachers' work through a variety of exercises.

While the written examination and the portfolio drew directly on teachers' knowledge and experiences in their own schools, the assessment-center exercises were designed to examine their broader understanding of teaching.

For the "cooperative group discussion'' exercise, for example, the teachers were told to imagine that they had been named to a curriculum-development committee in a mythical school. They were told that the school was in a metropolitan area and served a diverse group of students.

They were also given a specific grade level and a theme for the unit of instruction they were to plan.

Each teacher had received eight novels ahead of time to read. To begin the exercise, they were given about an hour to prepare to discuss the books with other teachers.

Their task was to decide which four of the books would be most suitable for the students in the fictional school, to justify why they had chosen or rejected each book, and to talk about how the books fit together.

The teachers then came together to talk about their recommendations, with the help of questions from the interviewer.

It was clear from the discussion, which had a relaxed and friendly tone, that some of the teachers were thinking of their own students and not necessarily those described in the assignment.

One teacher said, for example, that she thought a book would appeal to her rural students because it was laced with Biblical language.

Diversity Issues a Challenge

Removing themselves from their own classrooms and drawing on their general knowledge of how to teach language arts to early adolescents proved to be a challenge for most of the teachers here, in fact.

One of the qualities that the assessments seek to identify in teachers is their ability to take students' genders, races, ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic levels into consideration in designing instruction.

The developers of the assessments have found that teachers either have "a real command of those areas, or they don't,'' said Raymond Pecheone, a Connecticut education department official who is developing the assessment package. "There is not an even distribution across all of the candidates.''

In the essays, "we found that those topics were very difficult to try to assess,'' he said, "because many teachers haven't had a lot of experience with those types of activities. The answers didn't go into great depth.''

As troublesome as they may be, multicultural issues were included in the board's vision of accomplished teaching because teachers think they are important, Mr. Pecheone noted. Part of the rationale for creating the board was to improve teachers' preparation and continuing professional development, he explained, so information from the certification process could be used to provide a new focus for training.

One of the most difficult exercises that teachers were asked to do here was the "instructional planning'' activity, which focused on teachers' knowledge of language diversity.

The teachers were given time to review a variety of materials that could be used to teach the topic to 7th graders. With those materials, they were directed to select a focus for instruction and to design three activities for the students.

The interview was designed to explore the teachers' reasoning and to examine such issues as what difficulties might arise for the students and how the teacher would adjust for them.

Although the activity was designed to tap teachers' knowledge of diversity and how it could be used to enrich students' understanding of themselves and others, two teachers who were observed downplayed the role of diversity in their interviews.

Instead, they appeared to interpret the exercise as an opportunity to highlight the similarities among people and to teach students not to be "prejudiced,'' as one teacher said.

New Terminology

In a third exercise, the teachers were provided with batches of students' writing to analyze.

They were told to assume that they were 8th-grade teachers at the beginning of a school year, perusing the papers for clues about the students they would now be teaching.

In the interview, the teachers were asked to talk about how they would instruct these students and develop their writing skills. They were asked to identify patterns that were characteristic of the papers in their entirety, and also patterns of specific language elements, such as grammar, usage, and spelling.

The interviewers then asked the teachers a series of questions about these patterns and how they would help the students improve.

The wording used in the exercise to distinguish between features common to the entire paper and those specific to language usage appeared to confuse some teachers.

Most teachers he interviewed, said Cliff Coan, a high school English teacher in DeLeon, Tex., realized what was being asked of them during the course of the interview.

But, he noted, some confusion appeared to stem from different terms that educators around the nation use for the same concepts.

"I had to spend a lot of time saying, 'Could you clarify that?' because the terms we use may not be used everywhere,'' he said.

Mr. Coan said he found the exercise interesting because it simulated what teachers have to do during the first days of school to make decisions about what their students know and what they need to learn.

"Different people keep coming up with different ideas to work on,'' he said of the teachers he had interviewed, "and most of them seem to have some validity.''

Lingering Skepticism

The final activity required teachers to step outside their own experience perhaps more than the others. It was designed to gauge their ability to analyze instruction and offer solutions to a beginning teacher.

For the exercise, the teachers were given a written commentary prepared by the new teacher that described what she was trying to accomplish in her classroom. They were then shown a videotape of a scene from her classroom and given time to prepare written feedback on her instructional approach, her performance in the classroom, and her ability to meet her stated goals.

In the essays, the teachers were instructed to make recommendations about what the teacher still needed to learn and how she could improve her instruction.

In addition to completing the four exercises, each teacher who came to the assessment center here also participated in a roundtable discussion to talk about their experience with compiling portfolios and with the assessment process in general.

Although the teachers had spent dozens and dozens of hours working on the assessments, they still expressed skepticism about the concept of national teacher certification. Texas teachers are particularly leery of another type of test, they said, because they have been subjected to so many of them in their state.

Maria Teague, a 6th-grade reading teacher in San Antonio, praised the group-discussion exercise, noting that it "teaches the need for teachers to get together and plan.''

But she cautioned that she has "mixed feelings'' about national certification, worrying that teachers might price themselves out of jobs if they receive bonuses for becoming certified.

Other teachers worried that, without a financial reward, teachers would be unlikely to subject themselves to the work required to obtain certification.

In Texas, the distinction that is made between teaching reading and teaching English could be problematic, some teachers here said, because the assessments place a great deal of emphasis on student writing.

Judy Gasser, a language-arts coordinator for a regional service center who acted as an interviewer, said the Texas curriculum "doesn't always lend itself to as much writing as is indicated'' in the assessments.

"It's a bit of a challenge for the ones who are straight reading teachers,'' she observed.

A Catalyst for Change

A 6th-grade teacher also mentioned during the group discussion that her primary emphasis in class is grammar, while the assessments drew heavily on teaching literature.

Teachers of English as a second language and special education also expressed concern that the types of activities they do in their classrooms were not reflected in the assessments' emphasis on reading and writing.

For some teachers, however, the assessments' emphasis on writing caused them to take a second look at what they expect of their students.

Ms. Mossell, the San Angelo teacher, said her participation with the assessment field test made her realize that her students, who have limited proficiency in English, were not writing at all.

Compiling her portfolio, she said, "caused me to reassess the writing portion of my program. And I realized I did not have one.''

Since that time, Ms. Mossell said she has been doing research to identify techniques to help her students understand the rudiments of sentence structure with an eye toward writing in the future.

That kind of realization and effort to improve is what the national board is looking for, Mr. Pecheone of the Connecticut education department said.

"One of the major reasons why we do performance assessment is that it can really be a catalyst for professional development and a way in which teachers can share their practice,'' he said.

"If all it was was getting a certificate of accomplishment, and we didn't inform the profession,'' he added, "I'm not sure whether the national board really would meet its goals. It has got to do both.''

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