Test Pilots

By Ann Bradley — May 01, 1994 31 min read

It is a cold, blustery day in late November, and teachers Rick Wormeli and Diane Hughart are perched on the tattered brown plaid couch that takes up one end of the paneled trailer that is Wormeli’s classroom. Their laps are full of papers, folders, and cardboard boxes. They are feeling a bit overwhelmed.

The two English teachers, colleagues at Herndon Middle School, located in a Virginia suburb of the nation’s capital, have volunteered to take part in a project that is widely viewed as one of the most significant developments in the teaching profession in decades.

But just what that commitment means is only now becoming clear to them. On the strength of a little bit of information and a lot of curiosity, they and a handful of other teachers from around the nation have signed on to field-test new assessments developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The board has spent the last seven years creating a system of voluntary national certification to recognize outstanding teachers. The assessments, which ultimately will determine who gets certified and who does not, are nothing like the paper-and-pencil tests so familiar to teachers. Instead, Wormeli, Hughart, and the other teachers participating in the pilot test will spend the next few months putting together portfolios of their best work in the classroom. These portfolios will include videotapes of exemplary lessons, samples of students’ work, testimonies from col- leagues, and the teachers’ own written comments on their professional successes and failures.

Assembling the portfolios, Wormeli and Hughart are just beginning to realize, is going to involve a massive amount of work. And it must be done in a short time--the two months between midNovember and mid-January. But even that won’t complete the process. In early March, Wormeli and Hughart--along with other participating teachers throughout the Washington, D.C., area--will sit for two days of assessments designed to simulate classroom and teaching situations. They won’t find out whether they’ve made the grade until next fall.

But on this chilly day just after Thanksgiving, the eventual outcome of the long process is not something Wormeli and Hughart are worried about. They’re still reading through what they are being asked to do, making sense of unfamiliar terminology, and creating filing systems to organize their work. Just knowing which tasks to tackle first requires much thought. Looking down at all the papers and his neatly labeled accordion file, Wormeli says, “Right now, we’re feeling like we’ve sold our souls.’' Hughart nods in agreement.

Wormeli, Hughart, and four other teachers from the Fairfax County, Va., schools are getting started on their portfolios later than most of the national board candidates because the county was late in joining the field test. Hughart, half-jokingly, says she and Wormeli decided to take the plunge, despite the late timing, because they are both “overachievers’’ who like to test themselves against high standards. That’s exactly what the assessments are all about: Teachers’ work will be judged against standards--set by accomplished teachers--that reflect the best current wisdom about teaching and learning.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, in fact, was founded on the belief that teachers themselves should define what it means to be a professional. It was established in 1987, following recommendations made in a landmark report issued by a task force convened by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Task-force members believed that in order for teaching to become a true profession, with the increased pay and responsibilities associated with professionalism, more rigorous standards for teaching had to be established.

The board, which has 63 members, the majority of whom are teachers, hopes that its certification system will strengthen teaching and improve student learning by creating standards that all teachers can strive to meet. National certification is seen not as an end in itself but as an opportunity for teachers to experience professional growth.

While the national board, as a private body, has no direct control over how school districts and states reward nationally certified teachers, it hopes that they will receive higher pay, new career opportunities that don’t require them to leave the classroom, and increased flexibility in moving between states without having to take additional course work. A number of states and school districts are now beginning to discuss creating incentives and rewards for board-certified teachers.

The board plans to officially launch the certification system next year with the two assessments that Wormeli and Hughart are helping test. One is for English language arts teachers, and the other is for generalists; both are for teachers of early adolescents. More than a dozen committees are currently working to set stan- dards in other subject areas and grade levels; eventually, the national board plans to offer certification in more than 30 teaching specialties. The field test, board officials say, is designed to identify and smooth out the kinks involved in administering a nationwide assessment system. But if Wormeli and Hughart do well, they will be among the first teachers in the United States to receive national certification.

Hughart, an 8th grade teacher who made a mid-career switch to teaching four years ago at age 36, signed up for the project after reading in a newsletter for Fairfax teachers that the board was looking for volunteers. She’d been interested in national certification since first learning of the concept several years ago. “I’m more curious than anything,’' she says, “and I like the idea of trying something new and being involved.’' She also was attracted because the field test is free. (Next year, candidates for certification will pay $975 to undergo the assessments. The board hopes that eventually some or all of the fee will be subsidized by states or school districts.)

Wormeli, who is 33 and began teaching 7th grade this year after a decade in elementary school, was encouraged by the chairman of his school’s English department to take part in the field test. He hopes that national certification will lead to a raise--although he knows there are no guarantees--and enable him to teach in any district without losing his pension contributions. The prospect of spending some time in “quiet introspection’’ about his work also appeals to him.

Neither of the teachers volunteered for lack of better things to do. Hughart, a single mother of two boys, ages 11 and 13, recently sold her house and is planning to move during the Christmas holidays. Because of renovations at school, she will have to move to a new classroom at about the same time. Wormeli is also anticipating life-altering events. His wife is expecting the couple’s second child in the spring, and their house is on the market.

Hughart will be field-testing the assessment for English language arts teachers, Wormeli the one for generalists. For this, he will draw heavily on his years teaching at the elementary level. The national board process encourages candidates to collaborate. The process, after all, is designed to be a professionaldevelopment exercise as well as a measure of expertise. Although they are pursuing different certifications, Hughart and Wormeli have decided to work together on their respective portfolios.

As they are about to find out, they’ll need all the help and support they can get.

In compiling their portfolios, teachers are expected to spend at least three weeks documenting their work with one class. So, one of the first decisions Wormeli and Hughart must make is which of their classes to focus on. Wormeli turns to Chuck Cascio, a Fairfax County teacher who works part time in the national board’s Washington office, for advice. The Fairfax teachers volunteering for the field test will also receive some assistance from faculty members at George Washington University’s school of education. The teachers aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from these regular meetings. The academics hope to learn how they can make their teacher preparation programs more compatible with national certification and how they can best support teachers going through the process.

With Cascio’s help, Wormeli decides to work with a class that includes a large number of students with learning disabilities. Although he knows it will be tough to document growth over a short time period with such students, he’s aware that the assessment favors teachers who meet the needs of diverse kinds of learners. Hughart, searching for a diverse group of outgoing students, picks her sixth-period 8th graders.

Almost immediately, Wormeli and Hughart begin videotaping their classroom lessons, letting their students take turns with the cameras. They also start to write about their teaching. Through their collaboration, they quickly notice that the board expects different things from each of them. In general, Wormeli’s assigned portfolio exercises are more open-ended than Hughart’s. For example, Wormeli, the generalist, must complete a running written commentary on his work, while Hughart, the language arts specialist, is asked to fill in “activity charts’’ that describe her teaching. The teachers theorize that the difference stems from the subjects being assessed: The role of the English language arts teacher is much more defined than that of the generalist, who must teach all subjects.

Each night about 10, after bathing his toddler son and grading papers, Wormeli sits down at his home computer to write a two- to three-page commentary on the day’s activities. It usually takes him about two hours to describe what he had planned to do and why and to reflect on whether it worked or not and why. The assignment seems to mesh perfectly with Wormeli’s enthusiastic, effusive personality. He looks at every situation from a dozen angles and eagerly shares his material with the other participating teachers. He clearly wants to do well and quickly becomes known among his colleagues for overpreparing each exercise in the portfolio. “Am I doing what the assessors are looking for?’' he wonders aloud at a meeting. “I would hate to go all the way through this and not have what I was supposed to have.’'

Hughart, on the other hand, only needs about 20 minutes a day to document her teaching. The charts she is using break the class period into segments and ask her to describe what she and her students are doing and why. Later, she’ll write an eight-page commentary from notes. She’s somewhat disappointed by the confines of the charts. They seem quite dull compared with the nightly writing that Wormeli finds so stimulating. She is currently enrolled in a graduate course on teachers as researchers and knows the value of reflection.

“The commentary provides a place for me to tell my story,’' Wormeli tells Hughart one day in his classroom. “I look forward to this.’'

At this point, Hughart doesn’t share his enthusiasm. “This is really very bland to me,’' she complains. “It’s humdrum. There’s nothing in here about how I make my decisions. To me, reflection is what makes individual teachers different.’'

At first, videotaping is a novelty that adds an air of excitement to the teachers’ classes. Students love taking turns operating the video cameras and being responsible for something they know is important. But the fun soon wears off. Hughart begins to feel stressed, knowing that she needs to capture a near-perfect lesson on tape. Her students, she notices, are not adjusting well to the camera; their discussions are inhibited or silly. And the portfoliopreparation process, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays, could not have come at a worse time. Students are restless, and their schedules are full. “These days,’' Hughart says in mid-December, “I have a sense of urgency with the camera. There are only so many days until the winter break, when I’d like to have it finished.’' It doesn’t help that the taping of one particularly good lesson is interrupted by a fire drill.

Wormeli, who teaches in a narrow portable classroom, is having problems of his own. The dimensions of the room make videotaping difficult; there’s no room for a tripod, so the camera is wedged onto a shelf. He decides to let students take turns taping sessions with the camera on their shoulders. This seems to work better.

As the teachers proceed with videotaping, writing, and gathering samples of students’ work, they periodically take time to read the teaching standards that underlie the board’s assessments. Hughart, especially, feels that the stan- dards are in synch with Fairfax County’s curricula. And the teachers read and reread the directions that describe what they’re supposed to do with the enormous amounts of material they are collecting. At times, the requirements seem reasonable and doable. But other times, the directions seem too specific and demanding. Hughart wonders, “If you fail to do one little thing they were specific about, will you fail to be certified?’'

Wormeli decides to videotape and write commentaries for four and a half weeks, even though the board only requires candidates to do it for three. During this time, he’s preparing his students, in cooperation with their history teacher, for an independent research project. He teaches them how to pick a topic, narrow it down, conduct interviews, and use a narrative writing style. He also is teaching parts of speech and works in time for free reading and journal writing.

One day, during a grammar lesson, he dresses up as “Adverb Man’’ and zips around modifying things. As he explains concepts and answers questions, he changes his voice. One day, he’s a pirate; the next, a Frenchman.

Meanwhile, Hughart’s 8th graders are beginning a drama unit, reading a play based on The Diary of Anne Frank. They keep their own diaries, read the play aloud, discuss the play’s characters, and watch a documentary film called The Life of Anne Frank. They also write about their own families’ traditions, since, in the play, the Franks celebrate Hanukkah. “I had to think of something that would show integration of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing,’' says Hughart, who manages her classes with an easy-going, friendly style, encouraging but not dominating the discussions.

Because Hughart uses portfolios to help evaluate her students’ writing, she feels sure that she won’t have much trouble analyzing the work of three students, a national board requirement. But all the hours she has spent documenting her teaching have kept her from returning students’ papers in a timely fashion. She realizes she may have to devote a little less time to the assessment project. “I am past the stage of trying for perfection,’' she confides to the other Fairfax teachers at a support meeting. “I am just trying to get it done.’'

A few days before Christmas vacation, the two teachers meet in Wormeli’s crowded trailer for a quick catch-up session during their preparation periods. Hughart is feeling confident about completing the planning and teaching exercise. She has begun to collect students’ writing to analyze.

Wormeli has been looking back at his career, trying to identify, as the assessment requires, two “transformative’’ experiences to write about. Today, though, he’s bothered by something that happened recently, and he wants to know if he should mention it in some way in his portfolio. Borrowing a classroom exercise promoted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, he encouraged his students to compile a list of Shakespearian adjectives and then use them in some way to insult him. It was a big hit with the students, but it rubbed the mother of twin girls in his classes the wrong way. In fact, the parent was so bothered by the exercise that she requested a transfer for both of her daughters.

Hughart isn’t sure that the episode is worth including. “You are trying to show a good side of you,’' she says. “And because it’s unusual, I’m not sure it’s a true picture of your teaching.’'

The Christmas holidays pass in a rush. Hughart and her children move during a snowstorm, which costs her four precious days of working time. And then she has to move out of her old classroom and into a new one, causing chaos at work as well as at home.

At the Wormeli household, there’s not even time to put up a Christmas tree. Instead, the Wormelis tack up lights around their living room window and count the days until the portfolio must be mailed. “This vacation has been nonexis- tent,’' Kelly, Wormeli’s wife, sighs. “After dinner every night, he disappears for the next five hours.’'

As the holiday break draws to a close, Wormeli is feeling pressure. Among other things, he’s bothered because he has let his routine grading slide. Seated at his home computer one afternoon, surrounded by neat stacks of papers and professional journals, he reviews his progress. He has finished writing a description of the class he is monitoring, edited his first week of commentaries, and selected video vignettes to illustrate them. He has also decided what “transformative’’ experiences to describe--his graduate work in middle school philosophy and his efforts to integrate special education students into the “regular’’ classroom-- and which service project to highlight: his work as a peer observer.

Seeing himself on videotape has been a strange experience. “When I come home and watch the tapes at night, I am horrified and worried and feeling disillusioned; I see all the problems,’' he explains. “But when I watch them two or three weeks later, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought.’'

Wormeli’s next task is to select the three students whose work he will discuss. He stacks students’ papers into groups--high, middle, and low achievers--hoping to pick one student from each to analyze. Although his hours are filled with gathering materials and making decisions about how to use them, Wormeli has already learned a few lessons about his teaching. He has discovered that the way he organizes reading discussion groups doesn’t work. And he has decided to scrap his current vocabulary book, which teaches words out of context, and use instead words from students’ other subjects. On a less specific level, he worries that he doesn’t give students enough feedback. “I don’t give them or myself the opportunity to think reflectively and let them know where they stand,’' he laments.

But he has also noticed strengths that he believes will work in his favor as he seeks certification as a generalist. Because of his elementary background, for example, he does a good job integrating other subjects into his English class. His students write about math, science, and history each quarter. And when his 7th graders caught Jurassic Park fever, Wormeli taught a lesson on DNA.

He is making good progress on his portfolio, but the Jan. 14 mailing deadline weighs heavily on him. He knows that the last weekend before the deadline is booked up; his church needs a new pastor, and he has agreed to spend those days helping in the search. “Some days,’' he sighs, “I feel so burdened down by the load.’'

The weekend before the Friday, Jan. 14, dead- line, Hughart can see the light at the end of the tunnel. She’s relieved to have finished documenting her work with her sixth-period class. Now, she’s trying to select one taped class period to use as an illustration. She’s leaning toward the lesson that was interrupted by the fire drill because it shows her students working well in groups on the Anne Frank project. Each group randomly drew the name of a character from the play, found what the author said about the character, wrote down the information and defined any new words, drew a picture of the person, and recorded something the character said that reflected his or her personality. The students worked productively together as Hughart circulated around the room answering their questions.

Hughart also has picked the three students whose writing she will analyze: a boy in her gifted-and-talented class, a girl from the Dominican Republic who speaks English in dialect, and a boy from a regular English class. The three students have all shown improvement since the beginning of the year. The gifted student learned to revise his written work. The Dominican girl developed greater fluency in her writing, learning to elaborate and to use correct verb tenses. And the remaining student began the year with nearly illegible handwriting, which is now substantially neater.

Looking closely at many students’ work, she explains, has made her feel “more secure’’ about her teaching methods. Her favorite exercise was a discussion she had with a group of students after reading Flowers for Algernon, a science-fiction story by Daniel Keyes. The fifth-period class is one of her most challenging: a group of lively, talkative adolescents with a wide range of academic abilities. Some have physical disabilities, and one girl can’t sit next to boys because of her religion. With this group, Hughart says, she was able to elicit a genuine literary discussion of free-flowing ideas and responses. “Through this discussion,’' she writes in her portfolio, “the students were making connections between the character and their own experiences ... and were able to recognize the universality of the theme and the pertinence of it toward their lives.’'

On Jan. 11, four days before the portfolios must be mailed, Hughart, Wormeli, and three other Fairfax County teachers participating in the field test get together. The atmosphere is festive--they are almost giddy--because the end is so near. Four of the five have worked in pairs, an advantage they say has kept them going. “If I didn’t have Diane, it would be very difficult for me,’' Wormeli acknowledges. “Both of us have the same mentality, and she could interpret things for me.’'

But there’s also an underlying note of tension, especially as Wormeli and other generalist candidates compare their work. Because their directions were less specific than those for the English language arts teachers, there is more room for interpretation--and possibly error-- in their portfolios. Wormeli’s teaching and learning commentary is 66 pages long. One of the other teachers has written six pages; another, only one page. Wormeli is astonished. “I’m a little troubled that we could have such different interpretations of it, and yet it could still be acceptable,’' he says. “That’s really subjective.’'

Wormeli has other things to worry about, as well. Buyers have just signed a contract to purchase his house, so he has to rush home to conduct final negotiations. And tomorrow, his son has to have tubes surgically placed in his ears. There’s always Friday to look forward to, though. The Wormelis have lined up a babysitter and are dreaming about a quiet post-deadline dinner together.

At this point, Hughart is disappointed with her product. She doesn’t have a letter-quality printer and worries that her work doesn’t look polished enough. And the directions for putting together the materials are intimidating. “I thought I would be proud of it,’' she says, “but I’m not. I feel like it’s not good enough.’' And then, she adds, “I don’t know if I’d want to do this again.’' Both she and Wormeli believe that future candidates should have an entire school year to put their portfolios together.

Before breaking up, the Fairfax teachers share information about which local post offices stay open until midnight. The knowledge that they have until midnight on Friday to mail their portfolios seems to buoy everyone. They are all eager to send off the fruits of their labors.

When Friday night finally comes, Hughart beats Wormeli to the post office--arriving at 11 p.m. The previous two nights, she turned in at 3 a.m. and 2 a.m., and she’s exhausted. Her last few hours were spent labeling the materials and putting them together in the right order. She found herself constantly snacking on junk food. Driving through the winter night on her way to the post office, she kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this.’'

Wormeli finally arrives at 11:30. His dreams of a night out with his wife are shot. The previous two days have passed in a blur of realtors, doctors, and substitute teachers. (Fairfax County arranged for each candidate to have subs for two days.) He’s running on empty after a nearly sleepless week. Today, he spent hours making copies of materials on his father’s copier--"having anxiety attacks every hour.’' He and his wife combed carefully through his 66-page teaching account, making sure that each reference to students’ work was accurate. At the last minute, he realized he’d forgotten to copy an important document describing his work as a peer observer and had to rush back to his parents’ house. Finally, at a quarter to 11, he left for the 25-minute drive to the post office. “The whole way there,’' he says, “I kept saying, ‘Don’t go fast and get in an accident. It’s not worth it.’ ''

As Wormeli enters the post office, he sees two of the other Fairfax teachers, and they all burst out laughing. One of the teachers, worried that the portfolio might get lost, is trying unsuccessfully to persuade the postmaster to insure it for $600. Wormeli has a postal clerk securely tape his package closed, pays $7.45 for postage, and walks out--numb.

On the way home, he stops at McDonald’s and celebrates quietly with a vanilla milkshake.

The Northern Virginia weather, typically mild in winter, takes pity on the tired teachers and delivers heaps of snow, forcing schools to shut down for several days the week following the deadline. Hughart makes home-cooked meals for her kids and curls up with them to watch videos. Wormeli can’t rest; he and his wife have just purchased a new house, and there are details to wrap up. He spends the rest of his time grading student papers that have piled up.

After a few days’ reflection, Hughart is feeling cheerier about her portfolio. She enjoyed meeting new people from George Washington University and her school district, and she learned some things about her students from looking closely at their work and gathering information on their backgrounds. “There is always more to know,’' she says.

For Wormeli, examining his own professional development was a worthwhile activity that helped him clarify who he is as a teacher. Exploring ways to integrate other subjects into his lessons was particularly exciting. “I can’t turn it off,’' he says. And writing about his teaching, rather than just thinking about it on the way to work, proved a powerful experience. “Writing it out solidifies your own ideas,’' he says, “and gives you the vocabulary and the structure by which to analyze something.’'

But the time constraints, he notes, were too severe. In fact, he would not go through the process again unless he were given more time. Hughart admits that she considered giving up but feared disappointing the university professors who were so interested in her work.

The return to normalcy is short-lived for the two teachers. By mid-February, they are already gearing up for the assessmentcenter activities, which will take place at George Washington University over two full weekend days in early March. After receiving information from the national board, they have homework to do.

Wormeli has received a copy of SimCity, an interactive computer software program that simulates community development. Users can build cities from scratch or resurrect San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Wormeli’s task is to figure out how it could best be used by his students. The problem for Wormeli isn’t a shortage of ideas--it’s knowing that, to actually use SimCity, his students would need far more access to computers than they currently have. “It’s hard to be motivated,’' he says, “when you know it’s just a wisp of smoke.’'

Hughart, meanwhile, needs to read eight novels for young adolescents-- among them The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck, and The Pigman, by Paul Zindel-- which she will be asked about at the assessment center. Although she is already familiar with some of the books, she plans to read each one. She simply wants to be able to do her best. At this point, Hughart says she’s not thinking much about whether she will actually be certified, but she concedes that she may not handle it very well if she doesn’t make it.

She knows that certification will not bring any immediate rewards--other than the sense of accomplishment from a job well-done. In fact, board certification doesn’t really have much meaning yet. Fairfax County hasn’t developed any rewards for board-certified teachers, although those who are participating in the field test will get credit toward the requirements they must fulfill to renew their teaching licenses. “It will be a long time before this has real importance,’' Hughart acknowledges, “and that’s OK.’'

In his characteristic zealous style, Wormeli decides to study the textbooks for every core subject in the 5th through 8th grades to brush up on his subject knowledge. He also reviews the videotape he made for his portfolio because he has been told that he will have to answer questions about it at the assessment center.

Although he is concerned about whether he will have enough time to complete the exercises, Wormeli is excited at the prospect of meeting other certification candidates and trading “war stories.’' He has decided to spend $138 of his own money to stay at a hotel near the university so he can have peace and quiet before the big days.

Like Hughart, Wormeli knows the rewards for national certification are down the road. But he can think of things he’d like if he does get certified, and they are embarrassingly modest for a teacher of his caliber. He’d like, for example, to be paid to be an assessor for other board candidates next year. And he’d also like for his school system to foot the bill for him to attend professional conferences.

On Saturday, March 5, Hughart rides to the assessment center with another Fairfax County candidate. They arrive at 7 a.m. and are asked to show identification. This tickles them. “We said, ‘Yeah, like you could pay someone to take this test for you,’ '' Hughart says, laughing.

After taking two, two-hour written examinations, Hughart finds a discussion with an assessor a refreshing change of pace. She answers questions about samples of students’ writing, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses and how she would help the students improve. The discussion is videotaped for later evaluation. Overall, Hughart feels comfortable about the assessments but a little rushed at times. Still, by the end of the day, she is dazed. “After a lot of concentration, I get to the point where I am staring at people,’' she says. Saturday night, she unwinds over dinner with a friend.

Sunday’s assessments begin with a written analysis of a videotaped lesson taught by another teacher. “I was impressed with the fact that it really was an actual class videotape,’' Hughart says. “I don’t know what I expected, but it was nice because it was the real thing and not a setup.’' After her final written examination, she participates in a group discussion of the novels she read. The discussion, she says, feels lifelike--actually, better than real life; the 45 minutes allotted for the exercise is more time than the teachers at Hughart’s school generally have to plan together.

When she walks out of the center at the end of the second day, Hughart feels like the pioneer the national board says she is. “I really did finally feel a sense of achievement,’' she says.

Wormeli’s weekend gets off to a rocky start. The day before the assessment activities begin, he receives a letter from the national board telling him that, due to lack of time, he won’t be evaluated on the videotaped lesson that was in his portfolio. He’s disappointed and a little angry to receive such late notice; his preparation for that part of the assessment has been a waste of time.

After checking into the hotel late Friday night, Wormeli spends a few hours reading civics and physics textbooks. He wakes up the next morning feeling nervous. The day begins with a curriculum exercise that has Wormeli and other candidates discussing how they would create a thematic unit. Then, he is asked to write an essay describing how he would develop the theme drawing on one of three topics--systems of government, ecosystems, and the influences of the media-- that he was told in advance to brush up on. Next, he takes the first of three onehour subject-matter examinations. The day ends with a three-and-a-half-hour analysis of a mathematics teacher. During the first hour, he watches a videotape of the teacher at work in the classroom and reads a narrative in which the teacher describes her instruction. Wormeli spends the rest of the time writing a response to her teaching, suggesting strategies that might be more effective and recommending ways to incorporate the arts into the lesson. The videotape and teacher’s narrative are very much like the ones Wormeli submitted in his own portfolio.

When he finishes, Wormeli is so foggyheaded that he gets lost trying to find his hotel. Then he’s thwarted in his attempt to buy dinner; the cheapest entree on the hotel restaurant menu costs $18.95, and he only has $15 in his wallet. Finally, he orders pizza, talks to his wife on the phone for an hour, and crashes at 9 p.m.

The next day is just as long, starting with an assessment of the candidates’ writing proficiency. The one-hour time limit frustrates Wormeli. “We never, ever, ever teach kids to do things in one hour,’' he explains. “For a good writing piece, you would give kids at least a week.’' He finds it odd, at best, that the cutting-edge assessment would be “such a contrast to the standards.’'

The SimCity exercise, which Wormeli calls “the bane of his existence,’' comes next, followed by the other two content examinations. As he finishes, Wormeli feels the way he does after climbing a mountain. “I have an exhausted ache all over,’' he says, “but I’m tingly with what I have done.’' It’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t compare, he says, with how it felt to finish his master’s degree. “It’s not like I have rocketed ahead.’'

Looking back on the whole experience, Hughart feels that the assessments tied in naturally with her portfolio. For Wormeli, however, the two steps were totally different. And he preferred the portfolio over the assessment.

The national board will pay close attention to such comments from teachers who participated in the field test. The goal of the trial run, after all, was to learn as much as possible about both the assessments themselves and the operation of the certification system. In general, says Valarie French, the board’s vice president for assessment operations, the field test ran smoothly at 26 sites across the nation.

But there were some glitches, among them the last-minute decision not to conduct interviews with generalist candidates on their own videotapes. Including that exercise would have meant a 12hour day at the assessment centers, French says, so the interviews will be done later. Board officials also have heard complaints about the strict rules enforced by the proctors monitoring the assessments. This was necessary, French says, to ensure test security and standardization across the sites. But, she adds, the policy most likely will be revised.

Wormeli’s complaint that the timed writing assessments seemed to violate good teaching practice was also mentioned by other teachers. But French says the assessment center wasn’t intended to be an instructional situation. The point of the written assessments was to see what teachers could do under time constraints, responding to a question they hadn’t seen before. In the portfolios, she notes, teachers had plenty of opportunities to prepare drafts and rewrite their work.

“We have to do a better job of describing our expectations for the assessment center,’' she says, “so that at least the candidates will be better informed and acknowledge that we understand that if we were asking, ‘How would you get the best performance out of students?’ this isn’t what you would do.’'

In the future, candidates likely will have more time to complete their portfolios--at least six months, French guesses. That would give them much more latitude in deciding which lessons to focus on. Until practicing teachers assembled the portfolios, the national board could only guess how long completing the exercises would take. Teachers reported spending about 100 hours on the portfolios, twice what the board had estimated.

In the end, 545 teachers--out of 1,500 who received materials--completed the portfolio, far fewer than the board had hoped. “We’re certainly very proud of the people who stuck with this and completed it on time,’' French says.

The national board and its senior officials sent a couple of congratulatory letters to the teachers who took part in the field test, thanking them for their hard work. Although she knows that the intention of the letters was good, Hughart says she felt a little “degraded’’ by a suggestion in one that undergoing the national board’s assessments should have changed her teaching. “It’s like they think you need to change,’' she says, “or that their purpose is to change teachers.’' The process, she notes, taught her some things that she plans to incorporate into her teaching. But, she adds, it wasn’t a “major, earth-shattering event’’ in her professional life.

Now that it’s all over, though, both Hughart and Wormeli want very much to make the grade. They won’t find out until next fall. “I will doubt myself if I don’t pass,’' Wormeli confides. “This tested true abilities in teaching.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Test Pilots