Last fall semester, Blake Slutz ’15 was among Illinois State’s 47 special education graduates. He and his fellow new alumni all passed the edTPA test during their student teaching semesters. Their success was not isolated. Across the University’s entire education program, the largest in the state, 99 percent of teacher candidates passed the assessment. Illinois State’s performance far exceeded the national average of 85 percent.
“Illinois State’s remarkably high pass rate is not a coincidence; our world-class faculty and staff work tirelessly to ensure our teacher candidates are capable of meeting and exceeding this new expectation of the profession,” said College of Education Dean Perry Schoon. “We also placed a strong emphasis on communicating with schools throughout the state. Without their expertise and partnership, we could not have achieved this level of success.”
Though the assessment is taken by teacher candidates, its impact on the profession and the collaboration required to make it successful are applicable to all education alumni. The start of fall classes marked the first semester teacher candidates in Illinois needed to pass the edTPA to earn licensure. Before reaching that point, the assessment underwent development during a four-year pilot involving thousands of Illinois State education alumni and hundreds of school partners.
“Throughout that process, the University has purposefully engaged community partners with the mission of producing the top teacher candidates not only in Illinois but across the country,” said Assistant Superintendent of the Regional Office of Education Diane Wolf, ’89, ’92, M.S. ’95, Ed.D. ’15.
Yet, outside of some P-12 administrators and cooperating teachers, educators may have participated in only limited discussions about the edTPA.
What is the edTPA?
Focused on an educator’s ability to foster student growth, the assessment was developed by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE) through feedback from educators, including teachers, administrators, and faculty in higher education.
SCALE specifically sought the expertise of Illinois State’s College of Education faculty during extensive revisions to standards and guidelines of the assessment’s handbook. Completed during the student teaching semester, edTPA portfolio submissions are accounts of candidates’ planning, instruction, and assessment during a series of lessons. They provide the reasoning behind their decisions and explain how they would revise instruction based upon evidence about student learning, including formative assessments. Each portfolio includes video recordings of the candidate engaging students in learning and is used to reflect upon strengths and weaknesses.
Portfolios are scored and returned to candidates with extensive feedback by third-party evaluators, all of whom work in P-12 or higher education. By contrast, candidates received nothing more than a score after taking the edTPA’s well-known predecessor, the Assessment of Professional Teaching (APT), a multiple-choice exam.
For most candidates, the assessment is a welcome alternative to sit-and-take exams lacking specific application to students.
“A traditional question-based test does not best reflect how a teacher performs in the classroom,” said Lisa Browning ’15, a math and science teacher at Jack London Middle School in Wheeling. Like Slutz, she was among the first wave of new teachers whose state licensure was tied to their edTPA score.
“The edTPA allows a teacher to make connections with their students and apply them in their classroom. It is a more realistic take on how a teacher will perform.”
During the summer of 2015, Wolf and Illinois State edTPA Coordinator Elisa Palmer brought together more than 125 superintendents and principals, cooperating teachers, and teacher educators in an edTPA workshop. Though the groups work closely with educators at different stages of their evolution, they agreed upon the expectations they have for these individuals: the ability to think critically and reflect upon their practice. When asked how Illinois State and the edTPA prepared her for beginning teaching, Browning’s response directly aligned with these educators.
“My preparation reminds me to always think of my students,” she said. “I am constantly asking them questions and reflecting on how I can improve a lesson. It all comes down to the communication, collaboration, and the critical thinking the teacher does with his or her students.”
New beginnings to teaching
The faculty and staff of Illinois State’s educator preparation program proactively revise content to ensure their students can meet the evolving needs of the profession. Likewise, the edTPA and Danielson Framework align with instructional priorities in P-12 settings. Key constructs of both were weaved throughout coursework during the latest redesign efforts, and Illinois State candidates have displayed remarkable readiness for the challenges of student teaching and their first years of practice.
“All of my instructors stressed the cyclical process of planning, instructing, assessing, and reflecting,” Slutz said. “Not only did these principles pay off throughout all of my clinical experiences, but they directly related to the format of the edTPA assessment.” In initial interviews with hiring administrators, new teachers willingly share unsuccessful lessons. In fact, the ability to evaluate a weakness often tells administrators as much or more about a candidate’s abilities than the execution of successful instruction.
“They wanted to hear about times that I made mistakes, how I reflected upon them, and how I fixed it,” Slutz said.
Wolf has also witnessed a clear progression of readiness to participate in teacher evaluation when comparing educators who completed the assessment in 2013 to recent graduates like Slutz.
“Last month, my new teachers, including 25 ISU alumni, overwhelmingly did not feel threatened by the process,” Wolf said. “They told me, ‘I went in, I talked to my principal about my practice, she gave me feedback, and I went back to my classroom and continued teaching.’”
The rigorous assessment has also given new teachers enough of a background to immediately contribute to a school’s culture, rather than sitting on the sideline, said Herschel Hannah, M.S. ’94, Ed.D. ’04, assistant superintendent of Bloomington Public Schools. “Given the mandates and expectations regarding student achievement, we don’t have time to wait five years for teachers to come up to speed,” he said. “They need to be able to make a difference when they walk into the classroom, and I believe that’s a benefit of the type of preparation Illinois State and the edTPA provide.”
Those competencies were evident with Slutz, who naturally sought active collaboration in technology round tables and professional learning communities just weeks into his first teaching position.
“These are great opportunities to discuss new ways to engage students in learning, communicating with families, and using assessment results to track student progress,” he said.
The edTPA is not without barriers. Hannah understands why some districts see videoed lessons as a concern. However, he is also quick to point out that the use of video has long been integral to the process of National Board Certification, recognized as the standard for excellence for the profession.
Another concern is the system administrator, Pearson, a brand carrying negative connotation in some circles due to its pervasiveness in P-12 and higher education. Pearson justifies the $300 price tag for teacher candidates by arguing that it pays for the extensive technological infrastructure necessary to create and maintain the assessment system (receiving and evaluating portfolios, managing scoring and reporting results). Also, a portion of the expense is paid to assessment reviewers who are thoroughly trained and calibrated to ensure accurate scoring. Pearson expects this to actually be an operational loss for at least 5 years.
“The truth is, there is an onus of responsibility on both sides,” Hannah said. “Districts must ask for a seat at the table, and higher education must respond to needs of their clients, which is what districts truly are. Illinois State cultivates this type of collaboration, but communication must remain open to turn out the best teachers that we can.”
With the first two rounds of post-pilot testing in the books, the pass rates and overall readiness of Illinois State’s candidates communicate the message loud and clear. The field does not need to shy away from the high-stakes assessment.
“I am very proud that the institution that my degrees have come from has responded to the changing profession,” Wolf said. “They took a very critical look at their offerings and asked, ‘Is this still viable to our schools and the future teachers we’re serving?’ They are attuned to the field, and the true winners are P-12 students.”