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 and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

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.)

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

teacher diversity

Efforts to ‘raise the bar’ for becoming a teacher are running headlong into efforts to diversify the profession. Now what?

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Education advocates and policymakers want to have it both ways: they want more teachers of color and to “raise the bar” for the profession with measures that disproportionately screen out certain groups.

The two aims, both widely popular in the education policy circles, aren’t just on a collision course. They’ve already collided. In Baltimore, for instance, a highly-rated black teacher may lose her job because of a licensing exam.

This the third story in a three-part series on the relationship between certification and teacher diversity in America. Read part one and part two.

But there has been only limited discussion of the fact that these two objectives — diversifying the profession and making it harder to enter — are often at cross purposes, although certification rules are hardly the only reason for limited diversity among teachers.

“You need to think pretty comprehensively if you’re going to accomplish both those goals,” said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington and a leading researcher on teacher certification. “Some of the things you do to accomplish one goal work against the other.”

A report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, acknowledges the tension but argues that it’s possible for schools to have it all.

It suggests states confront the issue on multiple levels, investing more in recruiting potential teachers of color while also making the profession more appealing to everyone by raising salaries and subsidizing training. All of that should coincide with the development of better tools for judging whether a prospective teacher will be effective, which could replace current requirements like GPA cut-offs, CAP argues.

“Rigorous recruitment and thoughtful selection processes can achieve increased diversity and selectivity simultaneously,” the report says.

The paper offers one blueprint for policymakers. Others say states ought to take the opposite approach and actually lower the bar for entry into the profession, then carefully measure teachers’ performance once they’re in the classroom.

But right now, there isn’t much obvious political will to implement any of it, or clear research on the best approach.

Some states really have raised the bar

Between 2011 and 2015, nearly half of all states have ratcheted up testing or GPA requirements for entering teacher training programs. The raise-the-bar message has become policy, and teachers of color are the most affected.

At the same time, the push to increase the diversity of the overwhelmingly white teaching force has grown more urgent in the wake of recent studies.

“There’s clear qualitative and quantitative research that points to the added value for students of color when taught by a teacher of color,” said Travis Bristol, a professor at Boston University.

States have created an array of task forces to figure out how to recruit more teachers of color; the federal government has repeatedly made the case for doing so. Think tanks and policy groups have issued reports and held panel discussions. Many of those same groups have also called for raising the bar to enter the profession.

Meanwhile, states continue to grapple with how many hoops teachers should have to jump through before reaching the classroom. New York recently eliminated one exam required to become a teacher largely because of concerns about its impact on diversity, and is also considering dramatically reducing requirements for teachers at certain charter schools.

CAP offers a variety of solutions

The CAP paper points to a handful of states and teacher training programs that have prioritized both teacher diversity and high standards, like the Boston Teacher Residency.

It concludes by recommending improving recruitment for teachers of color, increasing teacher pay, using multiple measures for evaluating prospective teachers, and researching better metrics for predicting teacher effectiveness.

Goldhaber says a comprehensive approach is necessary.

“If you only [raise the bar], that’s going to be probably harmful to workforce diversity,” he said. “If you do that in connection with some other things, like raising salaries and reaching out to different kinds of people — those initiatives in conjunction with one another could work to both increase the diversity of the workforce and raise the bar.”

Of course, many of these ideas, like paying teachers more, cost money. As of 2014, many states were spending less on education than they were prior to the Great Recession.

Finding better measures for predicting who will be successful in the classroom may also be challenging, as existing metrics have proven limited and there isn’t a consistent definition of quality teaching.

Some research suggests that using a combination of metrics may be a useful tactic. Catherine Brown of CAP says teachers should be judged on a greater variety of skills without as much weight put on one test.

“One single test is not enough to tell you who will be a good teacher,” she said. “You need to look at the entirety of the candidate and that includes their interpersonal skills, and their ability to control a classroom, and their cultural competency with students.”

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

New tests and new kinds of training

Some are optimistic about a new breed of exam, including the edTPA, for directly measuring teachers’ effectiveness and reducing racial disparities in performance. The edTPA aims to examine a teacher’s practice, and it shows smaller racial gaps than paper-and-pencil certification tests — though substantial differences still exist between black and white candidates.

“I think that performance-based assessments [like edTPA] really give us an insight into how someone is able to perform on the job,” said Bristol.

Research on whether edTPA predicts effectiveness is only in its infancy. One analysis in North Carolina had promising results: a score on the performance assessment was a moderately strong predictor of teachers’ ability to raise student achievement, as well as how they were rated by their principals. Another study in Washington state was more measured — the ability to pass the edTPA was modestly related to effectiveness for English, but not math, teachers.

Another potential solution, favored by CAP and Bristol, are teacher residency programs, which offer intensive, practical training and the cost is usually heavily subsidized.

Indeed, research has found that teacher residency programs do attract and retain more teachers of color. But one aspect of the model that makes it especially attractive — generous funding to ensure candidates don’t have to go into debt — also makes it difficult to sustain and scale.

A different approach: lower the bar for entry, raise it for staying

To some critics, a better solution is to simply stop trying to divine which teachers will be effective before they reach the classroom — eliminating the possibility of incorrectly screening out qualified people, including prospective teachers of color.

“The current rules end up preventing a significant number and a disproportionate number of candidates of color from being able to teach kids, in spite of their demonstrated ability to do so in the classroom,” said Dan Weisberg, who argues that existing rules are poor proxies for performance.

Weisberg, whose group TNTP runs fast-track training programs for teachers, argues for observing teachers in action and looking at their impact on student test scores instead.

Whether teacher certification status and the associated tests actually predict teacher effectiveness is the subject of a lot of debate. Some educational economists have floated the idea of essentially eliminating certification requirements and focusing on initial performance instead.

Some studies find that certified teachers, and those who score higher on licensing exams, perform somewhat better in the classroom, though the differences are often quite small. (These studies measure teacher performance by their impact on student test scores.)

One advantage to traditional certification: teachers who go through that pathway are much more likely to stay in the classroom. If a different system increased teacher turnover, that could bring its own negative effects.

Goldhaber is not sure it makes sense to simply eliminate certification rules.

“I think you’d likely get more uneven outcomes,” he said. “There are places where that might benefit school systems … but then there are also places where they would not and might select people who are quite ineffective.”