Equity & Diversity Opinion

Ann Schulte: Teacher Performance Assessment Isn’t the Answer

By Anthony Cody — December 14, 2012 8 min read
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Guest post by Ann Schulte.

The edTPA is spreading across the country like wild fire, and I’m feeling burned out. My experience with standardized performance assessment over the past 10 years has given me multiple opportunities both to learn from it as well as critique it, and to that end, I’ve engaged in a variety of discussions about it initially with other California educators, and more recently with teacher educators across the U.S.

Amid the many reforms related to teacher assessment, the edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment) is gaining rapid and widespread attention. In this post, I’ll use edTPA, TPA, and PACT (Performance Assessment for California Teachers) interchangeably, though technically these are somewhat different versions of the same sort of thing. The edTPA, derived from PACT, involves several components, but I’ll focus mostly on the standardized portion of the assessment that involves teacher candidates responding to planning and teaching prompts (written responses can range from 40-80 pages) and a videotape of approximately 20 minutes of a teaching event. For most programs who have adopted the edTPA, a teacher candidate could not get a license without passing it, making it very high stakes. Keep in mind that all of this reform is happening in the extremely flawed context where policy makers are trying to solve the issues of society through teacher accountability.

When the Teaching Performance Assessment expectation was required in California many years ago, my department faculty wrote a program-specific TPA which we felt was rigorous and embodied our program’s goals and our mission of democratic practice. Our faculty worked collaboratively to include the state Teacher Performance Expectations, as well as the many skills and qualities that we think are important to prepare teachers who are professionals as opposed to technicians. The State Commission on Teacher Credentialing gave us one year to come up with reliability and validity data if we wanted to keep using our own TPA, but we didn’t have enough time or resources to do this so we had to default to the state approved assessment (in our case, PACT). Early in the PACT development process, we were aware that various state teacher education programs were contributing to the development of what would become a high stakes standardized performance assessment. Although it would not be program specific, there was some hope among many faculty in the state that this assessment, which underwent extensive validity and reliability testing, would answer the critics of teacher education. I am no longer hopeful about this assessment. I am continuing to invest my faith in improving the ways of assessment that put teacher-student relationships at the center of growing and developing successful teachers.

The content of the PACT is certainly a very narrow set of content and skills, but I don’t disagree with the value of some of what it asks students to be able to do. I have even found some of the discussions around these topics to be useful. However, when these conversations happen, I increasingly notice two things. One, the speaker attributes the benefits of these conversations to the assessment mandate, as though teacher educators would never think to make these improvements on our own. Two, I notice the subtle--and not-so-subtle--ways that PACT drives the curriculum. For example, instead of saying, “We should do this because it helps our student teachers to empower their students in their own learning,” I hear “We should do this because our student teachers need to know this for PACT.” Ask any K-12 teacher how testing impacts curriculum discussions, and you will have a sense of what I observe.

My experiences with scoring PACT have been some of the more demoralizing ones in my career.
In one of my early interactions with scoring, I made observations about the student’s teaching related to her engagement with students, but there was no language in the rubric for me to reference. When I asked about this, I was told that this was essentially the point. I was to use the rubric in an effort to gain reliability of the instrument. What I understood was that my professional opinion did not matter, unless, of course, what I believed was specifically featured in this rubric created by other people. Although I had been a healthy skeptic of PACT all along, this was the first time that I experienced a deep sense of marginalization and de-professionalization.

Some time later, after completing my yearly scoring “calibration” (a term that conjures Mario Savio quotes...), I was told that I had failed it. I received an email from our lead scorer that noted, “The idea here is to align your thinking with PACT Central.” As I read those words, I imagined electrodes attached to my head, the wires extending to a mammoth machine someplace else in the state. Those metaphorical wires have since attached themselves to the capstone course that years ago our program proudly titled Applications of Democratic Education and is now almost entirely PACT prep. That’s irony.

One of my concerns as a social justice advocate is that PACT does not focus specifically on culturally relevant teaching, or for that matter, any dispositions to any great extent. The rubrics’ language cannot capture the subtle qualities of good teaching. And because that subtlety is lacking, it is therefore not as often the focus of curricular discussions. In addition, I am concerned that our English Language Learners and first generation college students struggle with the intense level of writing required.

I want to make the case that we ought to concentrate our attention more on thorough and rigorous field supervision: the original performance assessment. The process of field supervision allows me to observe and assess multiple opportunities where I’m able to give feedback based on my knowledge of the student teacher and the placement, and guide a student teacher in how to reflect on her/his own development. Through my observations and mentoring over the course of the semester (or sometimes a year), I assist my student teachers in considering nuanced behaviors as they impact their own and their students’ learning. We have long taught our student teachers that good assessment of children involves both knowing them and using multiple measures over time to capture all types of competency.

Some edTPA advocates might argue that most programs typically still supervise student teachers in the field, so we can still assess the kinds of things that the edTPA does not, but ask K-12 teachers what they still do or what still matters outside of the tested curriculum, and I think you’ll understand my concern.

Perhaps the aspect of this whole movement that elicits the strongest expression of concern among teacher educators is Pearson’s administration of it. There are many reasons to be suspicious of Pearson, but the one about which I am most concerned is that when (and I do not think there is any reason to think this will not happen) Pearson packages and sells the edTPA curriculum, any “short cut” organization can run its teacher candidates through the program and claim to have produced a quality teacher.

I am very aware that some teacher education programs are not doing a good job, but as a profession, we’re capable of being better at improving what we do. I am troubled that we’ve been convinced that we are not. Just as with K-12 teachers, we have been fed the rhetoric that we are not capable of improving ourselves or, to use the corporate reform language, of being more accountable to our students.

Obviously, there’s the greater context and system to consider that limits our abilities, but let’s address those barriers, instead of adding another layer of disconnected accountability measures delivered by publishing companies. I would like to take all the time and money we spend on PACT and instead invest it in intensive professional development for cooperating teachers and supervisors and strengthen our partnerships with schools. These are the people I want to have the primary responsibility for assessing the performance of our nation’s teachers, without any help from Pearson. I believe that PACT began as a genuine effort by teacher educators to take responsibility for raising our standards, but somewhere along the way it just became another unfunded mandate imposed upon us, usurping our roles as professionals.

I know many people who don’t regard the edTPA as the best answer but contend that it is better than a multiple choice test or that it’s what we have to do in response to efforts by groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality to make teacher preparation “data driven.” To me, these arguments happen within the same hegemonic paradigm. I don’t believe these are our only choices. I actually have more faith in educators to teach through relationship. The best hope for our democracy is an education system where teaching and learning is complex, layered, nuanced and difficult to quantify

One group of 67 student teachers, working with their University of Massachusetts professor Barbara Madeloni, this year refused to complete the TPA. Perhaps not coincidentally, Madeloni was sent a notice of non-renewal. “We are putting a stick in the gears,” she told New York Times reporter Michael Winerip. Taking a stand has a price, but unless we “put our bodies upon the gears of the machine” we will be relegated to be the technicians who maintain it.

Have you experienced the TPA in any of its forms? What do you think?

Ann Schulte is a professor of education at California State University, Chico where she teaches courses about diversity and classroom action research.

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