Pilot Project Tests Teacher Performance Assessments

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Teacher candidates nationwide would have to pass a common performance assessment based on student-teaching experiences before becoming licensed, if advocates for a new certification process get their way.

At a panel discussion in downtown Washington Oct. 19, Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond and several other education experts spoke about a teacher performance assessment being piloted in 20 states. The event, organized by the Center for American Progress, coincided with the release of Darling-Hammond’s report, "Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness: How Teacher Performance Assessments Can Measure and Improve Teaching."

Darling-Hammond, who headed President Obama's transition team on education policy, explained that the pilot pre-licensure assessment is based on the Performance Assessment for California Teachers, which 33 education schools in California are currently using. The pilot Teacher Performance Assessment includes a "teaching event," for which candidates plan a unit of instruction, videotape and analyze their teaching, and evaluate student outcomes. The model is similar to that of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

A group of 20 states, working with the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers, formed the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium, which is implementing the pilot project for the 2010-2011 school year. In states that have already adopted the Teacher Performance Assessment as a licensing requirement—Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee, and Washington—the full program is slated to go into effect for 2012-2013.

Proponents are hoping to eventually roll the program out nationwide. Peter McWalters, a director for CSSO, said getting all 50 states to buy-in will be tough, however. Implementing licensing policy change will be "a huge burden of time and training," he said. But the stakes are higher in this era of accountability, he said, and "states are learning that to go it alone ... is counterproductive."

Ultimately, in addition to the initial licensing assessment, the program will include performance assessments for professional licensing (after induction but prior to tenure) and advanced certification. According to the report, a national system of assessments will be available in 2015.

Emphasis on Instruction, Not Tests

One thing said to differentiate the pilot assessment from current processes in districts and states is its emphasis on classroom effectiveness.

Most states require teacher-candidates to pass three multiple-choice tests—on basic skills, subject matter, and teaching knowledge—to earn a license, the report says, "even though these are not strongly related to their ultimate success in the classroom." This is the case at the district level as well, Darling-Hammond said. "Almost never do local evaluations look at student learning," or leave time for a reflection process, she said.

Performance assessments, on the other hand, measure how well teachers fare in front of students.

Panelist Thomas Prieto, now a coach at the Success For All Foundation, went through PACT as a teacher candidate. The daily videotaping was most revealing, he said, because it allowed him to see whether students were engaged during a lesson. "I would take the tape home at night and say, 'Aww, I'm not going to do that tomorrow.'" The assessment process also taught him to plan units backward and stay focused on the particular standard he wanted students to learn.

Teacher-Prep Impact

Charles Peck, professor of education and special education at University of Washington, also on the panel, said one thing that excites him about the project is that it helps create a common language within the profession. "You can see colleagues within and across programs be able to understand what one another are talking about," he said.

Improving education schools themselves is another goal of the performance-assessment pilot. While tracking student test scores by teacher can be worthwhile, Peck said, "having a value-added perspective on student achievement doesn’t really tell you how to fix your program." The performance assessments will provide detailed data on where teacher-candidates lack skills, and consequently what parts of a teacher-preparation program need improvement.

Peck admitted he was skeptical about performance assessments until his university began using PACT. "It was shocking to our faculty to see the discrepancy between what we thought we were teaching and what candidates were actually able to pick up and put into their practice," he said. It was what he referred to as a "syllabus-shredding moment."

Darling-Hammond said she hopes the assessment system will be incorporated into the accreditation process for education schools. For instance, she offered, "some percentage of candidates must pass pre-licensing in order [for a school] to be accredited."

When asked about the possibility of the scoring for the assessment eventually being watered down, allowing more and more teachers to pass, Darling-Hammond said the system will require continuous calibration. McWalters asserted that transparency about scoring will keep the standards high.

As for the pilot project, Darling-Hammond said some teacher candidates do get counseled out of the program. And Peck claimed having the "more objective" teacher performance data makes it easier to dismiss candidates than it was previously.

Ultimately, Darling-Hammond said she believes the project could lead to the development of a national teacher license, which would allow teachers to cross state lines without needing re-certification. A national licensing process would also provide assurance for districts that incoming teachers are up to par. "In other professions," Darling-Hammond said, "national accreditation is the norm."

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