Opinion
Teacher Preparation Opinion

Why Performance Tests for New Teachers Make Sense

By Joann Bartoletti, Gail Connelly, Daniel A. Domenech & Sharon P. Robinson — April 10, 2014 4 min read

During a recent teaching and learning conference in Washington, one high school student talked about why he wanted to be a teacher. The student, who was taking part in a panel at the event, also shared what happens when he tells his peers about his career ambition.

The standard response goes something like: “Why would you want to do that?”

It’s hard to imagine the same reply if the student were to say he wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer, or another type of professional whose career choice comes with built-in assumptions about the skills and prestige associated with it.

As national representatives of, respectively, school principals, school district administrators, and teacher-preparation programs, we believe it is essential to our nation’s well-being that the young man at the conference—and all future teachers—be lauded for their dream, respected for their choice, and successful in such a noble and challenging career.

That is why we are coming together to endorse one of the most important movements to come to teaching in generations. That movement is the rapid and forceful support for performance-based entrance—via assessment—for prospective educators seeking a teaching license.

The leaders of education preparation programs care deeply about their students and high-quality teaching. They want their candidates to succeed as teachers.

But as a field, it’s no longer enough to say that our standard for becoming a teacher is course completion and fill-in-the-bubble, subject-level tests. Neither of these traditional gateways to the profession provides demonstrated competence in core teaching skills.

Performance assessment promotes essential teaching skills ... by ensuring that they are emphasized, measured, and supported."

The National Education Association is embarking on a campaign to ensure all new teachers are “profession ready” and endorses performance-based assessment. In 2012, the American Federation of Teachers called for an authentic assessment that could serve as the equivalent of a bar exam for entrance into teaching.

These are critical positions by organizations representing a majority of teachers—policy stands that are propelling the field forward.

Today, more than 500 institutions in 34 states and the District of Columbia are joining this effort and using the edTPA assessment, which was developed by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, with the help of state officials and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. The test is designed to help determine if prospective teachers are ready to enter the profession with the skills necessary to help all their students learn. Pearson is administering the edTPA, which launched last fall after two years of field-testing involving the scoring of more than 12,000 portfolios from teacher-candidates in 250 teacher-preparation programs.

Recently, the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) announced its own version of such an assessment, called the Praxis Performance Assessment for Teachers, which has been adopted by Missouri and will be widely available in fall 2014.

Our respective organizations welcome such preservice performance assessments as long as they reflect input from the field, meet rigorous standards of validity and reliability, and support research-based instructional practice. We look forward to helping shape and improve these and other performance-based assessments as they evolve.

We respect concerns that these assessments will narrow curriculum or make it too difficult for some to get into teaching. We believe, however, that performance assessment promotes essential teaching skills—the same ones already being taught in most preparation programs—by ensuring that they are emphasized, measured, and supported.

For example, the edTPA is designed to evaluate how teacher-candidates plan and teach lessons in ways that make the content clear and help diverse students learn, assess the effectiveness of their teaching, and adjust teaching as necessary. We believe that new teachers who can demonstrate these skills will be more successful and confident.

The truth is that, if we turn back now, the field of teacher preparation will foster the very inequities we are compelled to address. A 2011 survey by the National Center for Education Information found that fewer than half of teachers felt “very competent” to teach when they started in the profession. We also know from research that many of these teachers are assigned to classrooms with the neediest students.

And despite the commitment and enthusiasm that new teachers display, half leave the profession before they reach the five-year mark. This is not a sustainable path for the world’s most powerful nation, especially when we consider that there are more novice teachers in the profession than ever before. In fact, an October 2013 study from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education found the most common level of experience for teachers in the 2007-08 school year was one year.

As educators, we can’t control what Congress, state education agencies, or school boards ask us to do. But we can control what it means and what it takes to be a new teacher.

Yes, there is a lot of work ahead, but, while not everyone agrees on the right assessment or combination of assessments, we see enough momentum to be encouraged. We are joining as one voice to help accelerate this movement and to make sure it holds up. At the same time, we will be vigilant to ensure that this work is done well, that institutions have the time they need to prepare, and that P-12 educators are involved as collaborators along the way.

If the field makes this transformation, we will elevate teaching as a profession that attracts our best, brightest, and hardest-working young people. Most importantly, though, we will make sure that no child has to write off a teacher’s first year in the classroom as a learning experience for the educator only.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Why We Back Performance Tests for Would-Be Teachers

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