Education Opinion

Better Assessment For Better Teaching

By Betty Castor — December 11, 2002 8 min read
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Improving the profession through national-board certification.

It’s no secret that the single most important factor in advancing children’s academic growth is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. The impact of a good or bad teacher can result in as much as a whole grade level of difference in learning that still affects student performance three years later. “Value added” studies in Tennessee have found that the difference between effective and ineffective teachers amounts to a 40-point gap on student test scores. Because of the ever-increasing body of research linking teacher quality to student achievement, the methods of assessment developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offer a powerful lever to improve teacher quality beyond what is currently in practice today.

Just as we measure and test students to guide their improvement, effective teacher evaluation can help lift teaching to a higher level. Traditional forms of evaluation, in which principals rate teachers through one-size-fits-all checklists full of easy-to-measure but essentially meaningless factors, are subjective and empirically flawed. We will never improve teacher quality as long as we measure teacher performance by how often a teacher changes the display on the bulletin board or starts class by writing the lesson objective on the board. Traditional forms of evaluation also place too much responsibility on the principal, who is far too busy to monitor every teacher, let alone be an expert in every field taught. In the past, teachers, fearing principals would favor supporters, have resisted linking these evaluations to pay increases or “master teacher” status.

More recent efforts to base teacher evaluation on students’ test scores too often reward teachers for having smarter students, or for doing more test preparation than actual teaching. Even value-added approaches that seek to identify learning gains still rely on scores from tests that were never intended to measure teacher performance, and that fail to account for important aspects of good teaching. They are silent on teachers’ knowledge of subject matter, their ability to adapt and improvise instruction, their effectiveness at developing challenging and engaging lessons, and their success at inspiring students to personal accomplishment and intellectual engagement.

By establishing standards that look at what teachers know and do, the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has developed a system to evaluate accomplished practice that is unprecedented among professions. The board has identified standards in virtually every field of teaching and uses multiple methods to evaluate teachers, incorporating the psychometrically sound use of teacher portfolios, samples of corrected student work, videotapes of actual lessons, and exercises at an assessment center. The system is tightly tied to standards in terms of the questions, instruction of candidates, training of scorers, scoring rubrics, and benchmarking of performances.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offer a powerful lever to improve teacher quality beyond what is currently in practice today.

Through this teacher-led national board, the education community established 15 years ago, for the first time in American history, a consensus on what constitutes best practice in teaching and how to measure it. Anyone can look at the standards in a particular area and see at once what a teacher should know and be able to do. By developing a body of accumulated wisdom put together by expert practitioners, the national board has set teaching on the road to being recognized as a profession with a canon of specialized knowledge. Teachers’ unions, administrators, and policymakers agree that these standards and assessments are a valid way to recognize and reward accomplished teaching. Virtually every state and more than 400 school districts now offer incentives and bonuses to national-board-certified teachers.

This codification of the profession’s consensus has begun to revolutionize all aspects of teaching, including better ways to train, license, and mentor new teachers following the road map created by the national board. Standards are elevating the quality of education schools, which now use these techniques to evaluate teacher-candidates before they graduate and have made the use of portfolios to demonstrate achievement ubiquitous in teacher education. The national board currently works with 468 colleges and universities, representing more than one-third of the nation’s colleges of education, to use these standards as the basis for what teachers in their program should know and be able to do. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is using the national board’s principles in evaluating schools of education. And two-thirds of the states use licensing standards based on national-board standards.

The impact of these standards and assessments comes from growing evidence that the national board process effectively identifies high-quality teachers. Several initial studies have been completed, and a major, three-year examination of the influence of national-board certification on teaching and student achievement is under way. Qualitative research has discovered that four out of five of these teachers say that seeking certification taught them how to improve their teaching. Scientifically constructed validity studies revealed that these teachers significantly outperformed their peers on 11 out of 13 key measures of good teaching.

The NBPTS is anticipating the results of a research study being managed by the expert statistician William Sanders. It will compare more than 800 North Carolina teachers: those who achieved national-board certification, those who went through the process and did not achieve certification, and those who have not been through the process. Twenty-two other research studies will examine the impact of national certification and the effects of national-board- certified teachers on the quality of teaching and student learning. These studies were selected by the RAND Corp., through an independent review process. Preliminary evidence shows that these teachers do make a difference in the classroom.

Their impact will grow along with their numbers, which have doubled each year since certification was first offered. The national board is working toward the goal of certifying 100,000 teachers (nearly 3 percent of the profession) by 2006. In North Carolina, board-certified teachers already make up 5 percent of all teachers in the state.

Wanting to be recognized for their hard work and dedication, teachers voluntarily participate in this extremely rigorous assessment of teaching. The willingness of so many to pit themselves against these strict standards and extensive evaluations shows that teachers are professionals who strive to become better. During my tenure as the president of the NBPTS, I routinely heard from participating teachers that the process of seeking this unique credential was the best form of professional development they had ever experienced, because it forced them to re-examine and rethink their teaching.

As their numbers grow, board-certified teachers will assume larger roles in their schools and in the profession overall. They will serve as models for others to emulate, mentors for new teachers, and leaders for the profession. Administrators, policymakers, and even parents will regard them as spokespersons for the profession and as living proof of how teachers themselves are acting to improve quality.

As they gain higher positions of respect and authority as a result of certification, these teachers will be advocates for teaching and leaders in the effort to elevate its stature. They will have a ripple effect across the profession, as new teachers taught in accordance with NBPTS standards, and licensed through state requirements based on these standards, are mentored by national-board-certified teachers. As a result, new teachers entering the profession will ask themselves, “When will my practice be good enough to seek this national recognition?”

National-board certification is especially relevant in our current era of accountability, when parents, policymakers, and the public are demanding higher performance from both students and those who teach them.

National-board certification is especially relevant in our current era of accountability, when parents, policymakers, and the public are demanding higher performance from both students and those who teach them. They are already looking at the effectiveness of teachers: States are raising their requirements for new teachers, colleges of education must now disclose the success rates of their graduates on teacher certification, and states must certify that all teachers are “highly qualified” by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

By providing an advanced certification for highly accomplished teachers that will help set a higher goal for what all teachers should strive to achieve, this endeavor is the logical extension of the new performance equation. States and districts can speed this process along by helping inform their teachers of the availability of this advanced certificate and expanding their incentives to encourage more teachers to accept the challenge.

National-board-certified teachers are the heralds of teaching as a true profession. Certified as meeting higher standards of quality, they will be more trusted by administrators and parents, alleviating the need for “teacher proof” curricula and increased oversight. With more visibility and credibility as a result of certification, they will have more freedom to share their expertise and abilities with other teachers, raising the quality of the profession overall and eliminating the need for much of the nonteaching bureaucracy that many teachers feel adds costs and gets in the way of real learning.

Teaching does need to change. The national board developed its assessments alongside its standards because we recognized that transforming the profession required more than another set of guidelines for what teachers should know. We had to develop a way to evaluate teachers against these standards, to certify those whose practice lives up to the vision of what a highly accomplished teacher should be.

By passing the toughest test of teaching ever developed, one created by their peers who know teaching best, the teachers who obtain national board certification set a new standard for teaching in America. Ultimately, they will be able to use their proven abilities and greater status to lift the whole profession to a higher level, and to enable all teachers to help their students reach greater heights of achievement.

Betty Castor, a former state commissioner of education in Florida, is the outgoing president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which this year celebrates its 15th anniversary.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Better Assessment For Better Teaching


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