Assessment

Are New Teacher Tests Vulnerable to Cheating?

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 20, 2015 5 min read
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“You send us your videos, lessons, and student work. We do the rest,” promises edTPA Tutoring, a website offering aspiring teachers help in passing the eponymous performance-based licensing exam.

For a fee, the organization says it will edit candidates’ classroom videotapes, review their submissions, and devise lesson plans that pass muster with edTPA scorers.

But some teacher-educators have another word for such tutoring: cheating.

As performance exams like the edTPA gain currency in the teacher-preparation field, such concerns pose a new question. Candidates who pass the tests are said to be ready to lead their own classrooms, but what if the results don’t reflect their own original work?

“It takes away the level playing field. If you’re someone who’s savvy enough to look this up and you have enough money, you can be guaranteed to pass,” said Leah Wasburn-Moses, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, which has used the edTPA for three years. “I look at how hard my students work and how seriously they take it, and I can’t believe that this is allowed.”

The edTPA test, created and owned by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, or SCALE, resembles the more well-known advanced-certification process created by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Among other tasks, teacher-candidates submit a video-recorded snippet of themselves teaching, alongside lesson plans and written analyses.

Teacher-preparation programs in some 35 states are using the exam to various degrees, although not all of those states require candidates to pass it to earn their teaching certificates.

There was no evidence of widespread cheating on the most recent administration of the edTPA. But there have been some apparent improprieties.

In July, New York’s deputy commissioner of higher education issued a memo to all teacher-preparation programs reminding them to inform teacher-candidates of penalties if they’re caught duplicating other people’s work.

In an interview, that official, John D’Agati, said that only a handful of scores, about 10, were flagged for problems. And he added that it’s perfectly fine for faculty members and students to support one another through the challenging exam. But there’s a line.

“As part of your education process, you should be working with other students, working with faculty. If you’re prepping for the exam, there are a lot of online resources. We certainly would encourage that kind of thing,” he said. “But as you learn very early on in college or even before: Give credit where credit is due.”

Test-preparation services, of course, aren’t new to teacher licensing. But to date, most licensing tests such as the Educational Testing Services’ popular Praxis series, have been administered in strictly controlled and timed environments.

By contrast, the edTPA portfolio is meant to be developed independently over several weeks of student-teaching and, therefore, gives far more freedom to candidates.

A New Market

Guidelines from SCALE outline appropriate supports for teacher-candidates. For example, education professors are encouraged to help candidates think carefully about their submissions by asking probing questions and explaining the scoring guides. But they can’t edit or help write aspiring teachers’ submissions.

“I have had students say, ‘Can you take a look at it?’ ” And I’ve had to say, ‘No, this is your exam,’ ” Wasburn-Moses said.

Ray Pecheone, the executive director of SCALE, drew a comparison to the collaborative relationship between a doctoral student and his or her faculty adviser: The student might talk through ideas for a dissertation but, ultimately, has to do his or her own research and writing.

“I think the idea of having faculty trust their professionalism and interact with students is a feature, not a bug,” Pecheone said of the edTPA. “But like with any high-stakes assessment, whether it’s the SAT or some other, there are outlets out there that are coaching. ... I agonize over folks that want to take shortcuts to their career, because it potentially hurts [their] students.”

The tutoring services’ prices can be steep. Those offered by edTPA Tutoring run all the way up to $2,500 for a “comprehensive” package.

“We coach people through their ideas about the edTPA. We help them prepare for the video. We have lesson-plan templates that help people plan their edTPA so that they have everything they need to meet the edTPA requirements,” a representative of the group who identified himself only as Eric said in response to an email inquiry.

A second prep organization advertising services on the Web, edTPA Preparation Tutors, didn’t respond to an email request for comment.

Still, test-prep services may just be the tip of the iceberg. Candidates who take the exam sign disclosures promising they won’t make assessment materials publicly available. Yet a quick Google search turns up several instances in which candidates have posted their portfolios, including at least one that purportedly earned a perfect score.

Pecheone said that SCALE and Pearson, the company that oversees the scoring of the edTPA, have put safeguards in place to hinder would-be cheaters. Pearson analyzes all the portfolios through plagiarism-detection software, comparing them with one another and against all previous submissions. Indeed, New York’s D’Agati said his July letter was mainly meant to remind candidates that such checks are in place.

Legal Action Possible

New York would probably invalidate the suspicious scores if cheating is confirmed, he said. In his memo, D’Agati also warned that the state could potentially prevent those candidates from applying for certification.

Meanwhile, both SCALE and Pearson are on the lookout for companies that explicitly offer to write candidates’ portfolios for them. They are planning to send a “cease and desist” letter to at least one such service, Pecheone said, and could go on to take further legal action.

“It is completely against any ethical or moral code,” he said. “It’s cheating, plain and simple.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Are New Teacher Tests Vulnerable to Cheating?

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