A laundry list of problems with new edTPA teacher assessment

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The edTPA is a costly assessment that doesn't accurately predict good teaching and takes educators who know the candidates out of the equation, says one professor.

Larry Vigon

Larry Vigon

Beginning on September 1, students in teacher preparation programs in Illinois will be required to pass an assessment known as edTPA in order to obtain a license. The test was added on to a list that already includes the Test of Academic Proficiency (also known as the basic skills test) or an acceptable score on the ACT or SAT; a content test before student teaching; and the Assessment of Professional Teaching.

Surprisingly, there has been little debate about edTPA, and coverage in the mainstream press has been scant. However, many in the educational community have some major concerns with this new assessment.

The edTPA was developed by Stanford University as a multiple-measure uniform assessment, and will be scored in Illinois by Pearson Education, a private, for-profit corporation that provides products and services for educators and school districts. (Pearson has also amassed the largest amount of student data in the country, which should be alarming for those worried about the privacy of student information.)

What is most worrisome about the edTPA is that student teachers will need a passing score for licensure and this score will gradually rise, making it more difficult to pass in the years ahead. What the final score will ultimately be has yet to be decided. Hopefully, the required score for licensure will not be determined by a failure/pass ratio, guaranteeing that some students would have to fail in order for the edTPA to be considered valid.

Impersonal, costly and subjective

Aside from the scoring system, a number of other issues are troubling to the educators who are mentoring these students: The evaluators hired by Pearson have absolutely no contact with the students. It is completely impersonal, yet these evaluations will determine the destiny of students who might very well be exemplary candidates as judged by their instructors and supervisors at their college. No matter how many A’s these students have on their transcripts, and no matter how praiseworthy their letters of recommendation, it will be these Pearson evaluators who, in the end, determine their professional fate.

Instructors see their students during seminars, confer with them after scheduled observations, and exchange emails with them offering guidance and suggestions. This constant contact exemplifies the close, professional relationship that develops between instructors and their students, and in most cases ends in a successful student teaching experience. As any veteran teacher will tell you, relationships matter, but this is totally lacking in the edTPA/Pearson experience.

What is particularly painful from a financial viewpoint is that Illinois is not even picking up the $300 tab that goes to Pearson. The full cost is borne by the students who must pay an additional $300 if the entire test has to be retaken due to a poor score. (The basic skills test and content-area tests each cost $135.)

What makes the edTPA totally offensive is that instructors are severely limited by illogical guidelines. For example, certain types of support for their students are deemed unacceptable such as leading comments about their observations in order to help their students pass edTPA.  This represents such a fine line that I totally excused myself from the edTPA classes, and focused instead on the non-edTPA classes, knowing I had full reign to say whatever I needed to say to help my students improve.

Having gone through the edTPA pilot program this semester, I have found Pearson evaluators to be highly subjective, despite rubrics that are in place. One score was so outlandish that it is hard to believe that such an individual is currently employed and in a position to cause some real harm to highly qualified students. Each edTPA portfolio can receive a total of 75 possible points and in this case there was an 18-point differential between what the Pearson evaluator gave one of my students and what I determined the final score should be. The other scores were within 1 and 5 points, indicating a real problem with the score.

It should be noted that Pearson evaluators are paid for each portfolio they grade so it makes economic sense for them to grade as many portfolios as they can, as fast as they can. Obviously, monetary rewards may come into conflict with their professional responsibility to give each portfolio the time it needs to properly evaluate it.

Drain on time, doesn’t predict good teaching

Another problem is the video component of the edTPA. Permission slips have to be distributed and collected, and due to deadlines, the videos of classroom instruction have to be completed early in the student teaching experience. Since student teachers invariably improve over time, it is basically impossible for edTPA evaluators to see how much the candidate has grown by the end of the semester. Then there is the fear, at least on my part, that some evaluators might even be biased against candidates because of their skin color, accents, or the fact that they wear turbans or hijabs.

One of the most frustrating aspects of edTPA was the time it took to deal with the minutiae. A required “language function” was so vague that none of my students even understood it. Neither did I. Also, much emphasis deals with formative and summative assessments. This sounds good in practice, but is impractical given that the final high-stakes summative assessment could take place weeks beyond the three to five lessons that the edTPA entails.

The handbooks contain a lot of information and much of it had to be explained to my students. All of this took up crucial class time that was needed to discuss appropriate methods and strategies that I had developed over the course of a 36-year teaching career at elementary and secondary schools in the private and public sector. Furthermore, my students constantly complained how burdensome this was and how they needed more time to prepare for their non-edTPA classes. Anyone who has gone through student teaching can tell you how challenging it is. The edTPA is an unnecessary drain on their time, and becomes extremely troublesome if their school asks them to help coach or advise an extracurricular activity as part of their student teaching experience. For instance, one of my students was deeply involved with the history fair at her assigned school.

What amounts to an educational entry level “bar exam” is also impractical since it is not a predictor of performance. After being hired, some exceptional teachers burn out and quit within five years, while others with fewer skills continue to grow and even become master teachers. In addition, evaluating a student teacher in one school does not mean that they will be hired in the same educational setting. In my case I did my student teaching at a public high school in Chicago, but was first hired by a Catholic elementary school where I taught junior high students.

While the Illinois State Board of Education will determine the score that is needed to pass the edTPA, the colleges of education throughout Illinois and their instructors need to have the final say. These instructors know their students best and are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the schools where they have been placed. They will witness their progress over many weeks, while the evaluators at Pearson will be limited by viewing two relatively short 10-minute videos and reading commentaries and lesson plans submitted by the students.

It will be the instructors of student teachers who will recognize the many nuances that eventually result in successful teaching, and it will be these new and successful teachers that will motivate and inspire our children.

Photo: University concept/Shutterstock.com

Larry Vigon is an adjunct instructor at the College of Education, Northeastern Illinois University and a former veteran classroom teacher.