Most candidates for a teaching license in the United States have to pass written exams testing their knowledge of teaching theory and specific subject areas, such as English or biology.
Now, a growing number of states and teacher preparation programs are focusing more on how an aspiring teacher performs in the classroom. The goal is to ensure that teachers are able to translate book learning into effective instruction.
“This is what a beginning practitioner must know and be able to do,” said Sharon Robinson, head of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “This is somebody who can be entrusted with the responsibilities of beginning practice.”
The most prominent of the new teaching assessments is called the edTPA, previously known as the Teacher Performance Assessment.
The test was developed by Stanford University in cooperation with Robinson's organization and Pearson Education, a multi-national company with a U.S. headquarters in New Jersey. It requires teaching candidates to submit lesson plans, videos of them teaching real students, examples of their students' work and their own reflections on how they might improve. Trained third-party scorers examine the portfolios.
The new performance-based assessments were created in part in response to the ongoing debate about how to improve teacher preparation programs. The edTPA was launched last month, after several years of development and field testing.
A number of states recently have adopted the edTPA (see Stateline map) or similar teaching assessments as a requirement for completing teacher training programs or getting a license. They also are using them to evaluate the quality of teacher preparation programs.
Since 2008, California has required prospective teachers to pass a teaching assessment. The state now offers a choice of three assessments, and is piloting edTPA as a fourth option. Among the other states that have embraced teacher performance assessments, according to the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity:
Jennifer Wallace, executive director of the Professional Educator Standards Board in Washington state, said a bipartisan group of legislators and other stakeholders supported the decision to require a teaching assessment. Wallace said teaching candidates also endorse the assessments, even though they are difficult.
“It really reinforces the practices we want to see in our new teachers,” she said. “We're asking them to reflect on their students, their students' learning, to adjust their instruction and practice accordingly, and this plays a really important role in that.”
One benefit of multiple states using the same teaching assessment is the opportunity for prospective teachers to be able to show employers in other states that they are qualified, said Andrea Whittaker, director of Teacher Performance Assessment at Stanford University's School of Education.
“If Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota all share a common expectation for readiness to teach, then a candidate who is prepared in Wisconsin but gets a teaching job in Minnesota is deemed by that other state ready to teach,” Whittaker said.
A teaching assessment also allows teacher preparation programs to get feedback on how well they are teaching. Raymond Pecheone, executive director of the Stanford Center for Assessment Learning and Equity, said the assessment will help to develop “a common understanding about what effective teaching is—how it's defined and how it could be measured.”
“That could be a tremendous milestone in the field to have common agreement,” he said.
Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies at the National Council on Teacher Quality, one of the loudest critics of teacher preparation programs, said there is a pressing need for a rigorous and reliable way to assess teachers' classroom performance before they become teachers. McKee said NCTQ's recent review of teacher preparation programs found that edTPA helped teacher preparation programs provide better instruction on planning lessons.
Still, McKee said he would like to see evidence of a strong connection between how teacher candidates score on edTPA and improvement in students' test scores. “If edTPA could successfully screen for effective teachers, that would be a huge boon to the field,” McKee said. “We just haven't seen it yet.”
As states adopt policies related to teaching assessments, more critics likely will emerge.
Last year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a group of students in the school of education refused to participate in the teaching assessment, saying their professors and classroom teachers were better qualified to evaluate their teaching skills than Pearson, according to The New York Times. And now that the assessment is ready to launch but not yet required by Massachusetts, some also may object to the $300 fee charged by the company.
Ashley Whitehouse, who teaches high school English at a public high school in Knoxville, Tenn., went through the former Teacher Performance Assessment in the spring of 2012 while student teaching, as a part of her master's degree program at Vanderbilt University.
Whitehouse said that while the experience was a lot of work, the assessment forced her to slow down and think about her teaching practices, and was a lot more meaningful than a multiple-choice exam.
“I feel like the (assessment) showed more of who I was as a teacher or hopeful teacher,” Whitehouse said.