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edTPA: A High-Stakes Assessment for a High-Stakes Profession

Good teachers are shameless thieves. When we spot ideas or strategies that will help students learn, we quickly scoop them up and take them back to our classrooms to try them out.

But good teachers are also givers. When we have something that works and another teacher is interested, it’s off to the copy machine or Dropbox to share. We don’t hesitate to informally mentor novices or collaborate with others to refine our practice. The act of giving is essential to the nature of our profession.

However, the era in which we find ourselves threatens this give-and-take tradition. The accountability age, exemplified by an obsession with student-growth measures and the misguided belief that these measures are the litmus test the public deserves, is having a detrimental effect on teachers and students alike. 

Now, instead of sharing their practice, good teachers are increasingly thinking about hiding it in order to protect their livelihood. I’ve heard numerous mentor teachers express concerns about taking on teacher candidates through internships and clinical experiences because they worry that their student growth ratings might suffer with a novice in the room. 

Thankfully, most teachers have resisted acting on these worries. However, their uneasiness is nothing short of alarming. It’s clear that educator preparation programs must fight back against the accountability gurus by continuing to cultivate effective teaching practices through live modeling and ongoing professional development.

Fortunately, a solution is already underway: edTPA. This new tool for assessing teacher candidates is already being used to evaluate candidates’ readiness for the classroom and inform decisions about issuing educator licenses. 

What is edTPA?

Launched in 2009, edTPA is an educative assessment that focuses on candidates’ ability to engage students in learning. Candidates develop a portfolio with evidence demonstrating their proficiency across three domains: instruction, planning, and assessment. Candidates compile contextual information about their classroom, lesson plans, examples of student work, written commentaries justifying their practice and professional reasoning, and 15-20 minutes of video showing their teaching with students. The process pushes candidates to analyze their practice and provide support for academic language demands across different subject areas.

Hundreds of teacher education programs around the country have taken part in the piloting and implementation of edTPA—and for good reason. edTPA provides both candidates and education programs with rich information about teaching performance. It is an extraordinary opportunity for candidates to evaluate their practice and determine priorities for early professional development—and for faculty to continuously improve their programs.

I’m affiliated with Illinois State University, a large-school model for educator preparation. We graduate a cohort of 900-1,000 teacher candidates every year, and we prepare educators in 42 specialty areas of teaching, leadership, and supplementary services.

We have actively contributed to the edTPA initiative because we recognize the value of the precise feedback we can get from the assessment. This past year, we submitted almost 670 portfolios to be scored officially, and the feedback that we received was illuminating. On one hand, the data confirmed that we are preparing candidates on par with the nationally recommended passing standard. For example, our candidates performed strongest on the rubric that examines their ability to “demonstrate a positive learning environment that supports students’ engagement in learning.”

However, the data also helped us realize that there are aspects of candidates’ performance that need more careful and deliberate development. We saw quite clearly that our candidates need more preparation and support in developing and choosing assessments that provide useful results—both for planning future instruction and for helping students continue their learning. (Consider the difference between teachers providing feedback that prompts a student to include more details in their writing or make a point more succinctly, versus the old “Looks good!” comment at the end of an essay.)

edTPA and National Board Certification

As a performance assessment created by the profession for the profession, edTPA represents a significant leap forward in how teacher education programs prepare candidates for entering the classroom. If you’re familiar with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and their certification process, you’ve probably noticed a resemblance between the two processes. But whereas National Board certification represents a well-respected marker of accomplished teaching, edTPA, using a very similar structure, marks effective beginning teaching.

Critics of teacher education are often loathe to make the distinction between different stages in a teacher’s career. But it’s misleading to ignore (or deny) the appropriately differentiated expectations for a novice entering the profession and an expert practitioner who has had 15 years or more to perfect his or her craft. Instead of holding a single set of expectations for beginners and veterans, we need to articulate specific and appropriate standards of competency for teachers who are just starting their careers, then escalate those expectations as they continue in the profession. With edTPA, we are doing just that.

Some critics have expressed concerns that edTPA is a high-stakes assessment. It’s true that, in 11 states, the assessment is (or will be) key in determining whether candidates are eligible for licensure. But I would submit: teaching is a high-stakes profession. We are obligated to ensure that future teachers are adequately prepared for the rigors of teaching.

Like National Board certification, edTPA is moving the profession toward a noble goal: declaring the essential “high-leverage” practices of effective teaching with depth and specificity. The preparation candidates receive to ready them to lead student learning should reassure mentor teachers that they can continue to share their practice with candidates. In turn, programs must communicate their commitment to edTPA and helping teachers and administrators work together toward the shared goal of engaging students in learning.  As we continue to prepare the next generation of educators, we will use the best tools at our disposal, demonstrating the sophistication of teachers’ practice and encouraging teachers to share their best practices.

With any change, there are certain to be growing pains along the way. At Illinois State University, we are using our edTPA implementation experiences to examine how we serve candidates and their future students well, and how we need to reinforce the curriculum. But whenever growing pains serve our long-term interests, they are worth enduring. 

That is another teaching tradition that we must remember and honor: doing whatever it takes to make a better profession for teachers and students.

Amee Adkins serves as the senior associate dean in the College of Education at Illinois State University and past-president of the Illinois Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (IACTE).  In addition to her leadership with performance assessment in teacher education, she specializes in the history and sociology of education to support more equitable educational outcomes.

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