Before she became an associate dean in the College of Education (COE), Amee Adkins served in the same role on an interim basis in the Mennonite College of Nursing. There she became familiar with the nursing licensure exam: National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).

Adkins describes the test as “a very sophisticated examination of nursing judgment” with the “threshold being the ability to operate consistently and accurately at the level of analysis and application.”

It is a clear “target” of professional competence understood by aspiring nurses, faculty members and potential employers—which Adkins believed was missing from the field of education.

“Historically we have had state-issued exams that were meant to be some minimal threshold for practice, readiness, or skill and knowledge,” Adkins said. “We need to lift the floor, but we need to lift it appropriately.”

Adkins returned to the COE with a renewed focus on engaging faculty in discussion about licensure and assessment. Her efforts took off in 2009, as Illinois State was approached by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) to be the lead higher education institution for an edTPA (formerly the Teacher Performance Assessment) pilot in Illinois.

Adkins served as the main organizer, working with two other pilot institutions: Illinois College in Jacksonville and the University of Illinois-Chicago. Months into the work, the project was accelerated.

“We were told that it was now the direction we are going to move in,” Adkins said. The three institutions became the state implementation steering committee in partnership with ISBE and the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), which owns edTPA’s intellectual property rights.

Today, Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) in 25 states are participating in the edTPA initiative. For Illinois teacher preparation institutions, the assessment becomes mandatory September 1, 2015.

Assessment development

Developed by Linda Darling Hammond and SCALE, edTPA assesses candidate readiness to teach through a portfolio evaluation modeled after the National Board Certification process.

One of edTPA’s core strengths is that it was developed collaboratively by teacher educators and P-12 educators. The approach provided a diverse range of perspectives and input from practitioners with classroom success.

“Both edTPA and the National Boards emphasize starting with knowledge of students’ strengths, needs, and assets as the foundation of effective teaching,” Adkins said.

Adkins’ commitment to effective educator preparation did not go unnoticed. SCALE lauded her work. She became part of the national design team, contributing to reviews and revisions of rubrics and the edTPA handbook. She also serves as a “voice on the scene” in public forums.

“There is a lot taking place in education reform right now, and sometimes things are moving so quickly that it’s easy to take a passing glance and draw a lot of conclusions,” Adkins said. “I want us in the field to take the time and say, ‘Let’s dig deeply into what the instrument is and what the assessment is looking at,’ before we come to conclusions about its value.”

Components and scoring

Portfolios are scored by teacher educators and P-12 teachers in the business of supporting teacher candidates—including NBCTs. Fifteen rubrics are used to review candidates’ planning, instruction, assessment, and analysis of teaching and academic language.

A candidate’s score is based on the 15 rubrics, as well as a cumulative score. Candidates can use the review of their portfolio to chart their early professional development agenda.

Performance is evaluated over a three-to-five lesson series chosen by the candidate. Portfolios consist of lesson plans, student work, and a brief description of the learning context that includes curriculum information and student learning needs and required accommodations. Teacher candidates also explain their reasoning behind instructional choices and submit a video demonstrating their efforts to engage students in learning.

“We are not only asking them what they are doing in a learning segment, but why they are doing it,” Adkins said. “What do you know about your students and their learning needs or assets that inform your choices?”

Interwoven throughout the evaluation is attention to academic language. A fairly new consideration, it involves how communication shifts across subject areas. Because learners are novices, teachers must pay special attention to considerations of academic language so students can make meaningful curriculum connections.

“The assessment isn’t meant to catch everything that matters in beginning teaching. It’s designed to focus specifically on what matters in engaging students in learning,” Adkins said.

edTPA at Illinois State

The University has served as a national model for its edTPA work.

“We are providing leadership in the field,” Adkins said, “and we are doing it enthusiastically because it’s a good assessment.”

When concerns were expressed about a specific aspect of the assessment, faculty came together for discussion and solutions. One area that required attention was the edTPA handbook for special education. It did not readily accommodate the diverse work contexts of teacher candidates in low vision and blindness (LVB) and deaf or hard of hearing (DHH).

“Special education faculty recognized that their programs required very different and varied student teaching assignments,” Adkins said. “Their candidates are not necessarily delivering curriculum. They are often helping classroom teachers develop the appropriate adaptations for accessibility.”

The traditional notion of student teaching simply didn’t fit, leading Adkins and her colleagues to catalogue and voice each faculty concern. When SCALE was made aware, both sides agreed something must be done.

“That was the moment where we knew we could make a contribution to this effort to make it right,” Adkins said. After dialogue between NBCTs in those specialty areas and program faculty, Illinois State delivered recommendations to SCALE.

Support for alumni

Amid current education reform, both teacher preparation and teacher evaluation are focusing on evidence from performance for evaluation. Former teacher candidates involved in the edTPA pilot efforts now represent the first wave of educators for the new form of teacher evaluation based on the Danielson Framework.

For all alumni undergoing teacher evaluation, they should know that COE faculty members are becoming increasingly fluent and well-versed with Danielson. And they are able and willing to help.

“You have a resource you can turn to,” Adkins said. “Come back to your alma mater and have conversations with us about how to use and select the best evidence from records of practice to demonstrate performance.”

When she reflects on the intensive nursing licensure exam, Adkins no longer gets a sinking feeling in comparing requirements of teacher licensure. Though long overdue, edTPA represents an appropriate assessment for a field that is vital to the success of our democracy.

“We haven’t treated licensure that way until now,” Adkins said. “This is our opportunity to recognize a high-stakes assessment for a high-stakes field.”