testing testing

New York’s most controversial teacher certification exam is now a little easier to pass

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, right, and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, left.

Just years after New York began requiring prospective teachers to pass a tough new exam, the state’s top education policy makers are lowering the score needed to enter the classroom.

The move could open the door to more teachers of color, who have failed the exam in disproportionate numbers since the state began requiring it in 2014.

The Board of Regents voted Tuesday to drop the passing score on the edTPA a test that requires prospective teachers to submit a portfolio of work including a video of themselves teaching from 41 to 38 starting in January 2018. The state will then slowly raise that mark until it reaches 40 in 2022.

Prospective teachers would also be able to clear this certification hurdle if they score two points below the passing score and meet other requirements, including earning a GPA above 3.0 and passing all other certification exams.

“Today’s action strikes the right balance by providing fairness to those seeking to become teachers, while maintaining some of the most rigorous certification requirements in the country,” said the state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, in a statement.

Tuesday’s decision is part of an effort to again overhaul teacher certification in New York state. In January, the Regents unveiled a package of recommendations from a task force charged with making teacher certification less difficult and costly in New York. Those recommendations included rethinking the edTPA’s passing score and eliminating one required test, the Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the Regents did in March.

Those measures are a course correction following a state campaign, starting in 2009, to make it more difficult to become a teacher. The goal was to raise standards for those entering the profession.

The new rules, however, weeded out qualified candidates, particularly prospective black teachers. In a Chalkbeat analysis of teacher diversity, New York state officials said black test takers are nearly twice as likely to fail the edTPA as white or Hispanic candidates.

At the same time, state officials are trying to increase the diversity of the teaching workforce and warn there is a looming teacher shortage. State education department officials argued that Tuesday’s move maintains high standards while lifting a roadblock to more teachers entering the classroom.

When New York made the edTPA mandatory, the state picked one of the highest possible passing scores. (The edTPA’s website recommends states pick a passing score between 37 and 42.) Even with the newly lowered score, the passing mark in New York will still be among the highest in the country, said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

States typically set a cut score between 35 and 40, so even with New York’s phase-in period, the standards are still considered high, wrote Ray Pecheone, executive director of the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE), which developed the edTPA, in an email.

This score change is only fair, since the edTPA administrators are still working out kinks with the way the test is scored, argued Jamie Dangler, co-chairwoman of the state’s edTPA task force and vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees. That’s largely because the test requires a fair amount of subjectivity when judging prospective teacher candidates, she said.

“It’s not ready for prime time,” Dangler said. “So to establish such high passing scores when there are real problems with the assessment itself was a disservice to our teacher candidates.”

In addition to the edTPA, prospective teachers have to pass two other certification exams, a content test and an exam designed to judge whether teachers have to skills to assist particular student populations, such as students with disabilities or English Language Learners.

With the high passing score in New York, the edTPA has proved particularly difficult to pass. Only about 80 percent of New York students passed the exam since it was introduced. The low passing rate prompted a “safety net” option, which allows prospective teachers to pass an easier, paper-based exam. Tuesday’s measure also extends the safety net option until next June 30.

The state on Tuesday also spelled out in more detail another option for students who failed the exam. Prospective teachers who score 36 starting in January 2018 and fulfill other requirements will be able to take their case before a panel to prove they have demonstrated the skills necessary to become good teachers.

Similar to lowering the passing scores, the Regents board argued the move does not affect the quality of teachers, but is a matter of fairness.

“The multiple measures is not a walk in the park,” Cashin said. “But it’s more reasonable than the cut score of 41.”

The chart below shows the new schedule of passing scores for the edTPA. (MMRP stands for Multiple Measures Review Process.)

First Person

We work at Denver’s Title I schools, too. Here’s why we’re ready to strike.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive “incentives” for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty — and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used for those incentives into long-term base pay.

Why? In short, we would rather have our base pay prioritized than earn bonuses that are not reliable, may not be working, and may also take the pressure off the district to solve systemic problems our schools face.

Issue #1: The current bonuses can’t be relied on. The “hard to serve” school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis. Teachers at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, for example, could lose their “hard to serve” label because their school dropped just barely below the threshold. Additionally, John Amesse Elementary School and McGlone Academy are less than two miles apart, serve similar populations, and are a part of the same network; however, due to ambiguous calculations based on test scores, free and reduced-price lunch numbers, and teacher turnover rates, McGlone teachers receive larger bonuses than John Amesse teachers. This is not fair nor equitable. Teachers need money they can depend on.

Issue #2: It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working. We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment. Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers. Many of the schools that receive these incentives still suffer from the same high turnover rates the bonuses were meant to remedy.

Issue #3: The current bonuses let the district off the hook. Some have argued that teachers in Title I schools deserve significant bonuses because the challenges faced in our work are difficult and taxing. However, many of these issues are due to systemic problems that the district would be better off trying to solve directly.

We know that increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools. Increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs. It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.

We support the union’s proposal because we want the decisions we make as educators to stem from a love of our schools, a desire to serve our students, and a hope to support our community. We want teachers to seek out and stay at our schools because they believe in our vision, our mission, our students, and our community.

We are also passionate about a clear and transparent pay schedule. We want that structure to recognize our dedication to the field and our commitment to furthering our education – not a system that provides one-time bonuses that are in our checks one year and absent the next due to circumstances outside our control.

Anyone who enters our classrooms will see that we are doing our best with the resources we have in order to lift up the students in Denver who are most impacted by systemic racism and poverty. Let us come together on this idea: Fair pay for teachers means better outcomes for students. If we can stand together on this, then we can help improve the lives of so many more students, teachers, and families.

This piece was written by Jessica Schneider, Noel Community Arts School; Tanessa Bass, John H. Amesse Elementary; Rebecca Roberts, John H. Amesse Elementary; Valerie Henderson, Sandra Todd Williams Academy; Brian Weaver, Florida Pitt Waller ECE-8; Michelle Garrison, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8; Michael Sitkin, DCIS @ Montbello; Cory Montrieul, DCIS @ Montbello; and Nik Arnoldi, Escalante-Biggs Academy.

Last minute

Teachers union continues voting on possible Denver strike

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver teachers resumed voting Tuesday evening on whether to go on strike, a decision that will touch tens of thousands of people in Colorado’s largest school district.

The vote comes after months of negotiations left Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association still $8 million apart and with serious philosophical disagreements about how teacher compensation should be structured. Denver teachers are riding a wave of activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. Teachers in Los Angeles just reached a tentative deal with their district after more than a week on strike.

Members of the teachers union began voting on a strike Saturday. A final round of voting began at 4 p.m. Tuesday and will end at 9 p.m. Union officials said Tuesday evening that results would be announced at 9:30 p.m.  

On Tuesday evening, a steady stream of teachers bundled against the cold made their way into a Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver where the last voting session is taking place.

Maria Cruz, an early childhood education teacher for the past two years who previously worked as a paraprofessional in the district, said she voted “yes” to strike hoping it will push the district to close the gap between its offer and what the union is seeking.  

“Teachers come and go and come and go and they never stay because there is not enough pay,” she said. “It doesn’t validate the teaching profession.”

The earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28. On Tuesday evening, district families received a robocall from Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova making clear that classes would go on as normal on Wednesday, and that district officials intend to keep schools open for the foreseeable future.   

Cordova has said she’ll ask for state intervention if the vote is yes, which could delay a strike. If teachers do walk out, the district intends to keep schools open and students learning by relying on substitutes, tapping central office staff with past teaching experience, and using pre-packaged lessons plans for every grade and subject area. 

A Denver strike would affect roughly 71,000 students in district-run schools.

District officials went on the offensive over the weekend, making the argument that their offer was generous and responsive to longstanding teacher complaints about stagnant salaries.   

The district also published its new salary schedule online alongside the salary schedules of other Denver metro area districts.

The two sides disagree on how much new money the district should put into teacher compensation and also on how that compensation should be structured. The district has said it will not compromise on offering bonuses to teachers at high-poverty and hard-to-serve schools. The union wants smaller bonuses and more money to go into base pay.

This would be the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years.