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.)

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.