Friday, March 6, 2015

Those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad teacher certification exams

Are you familiar with a recurring anxiety dream where you are taking an important examination on material you are not familiar with, have not been able to study carefully, and feel you will most certainly fail? Well, students studying to become teachers in New York State are living this dream as reality. In what is clearly an intentional effort to produce higher failure rates on licensure exams, the New York State Education Department has rushed to implement new, harder tests and to make the edTPA a certification requirement as part of a political agenda backed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor Cuomo, and former Commissioner John King.
Teacher education programs are frantically scrambling to accommodate students who are in a full-blown panic and understandable confusion over the sudden change in regulations. Even the Board of Regents is attempting to reduce the disastrous effects of this completely bungled roll out, perhaps making things worse. Meanwhile, the public is in the dark about what is happening in part because of the technical nature of teacher licensure, and in part because of a lack of attention to teacher education in journalism.
What is so terrible about these certification exams? Overall, there are six issues in my opinion that top the long list. I’ll start with that overview, and then I’ll get into specifics about each of the exams. Consider this my attempt at a 101 course on what it takes to become a teacher in New York State, besides getting a masters degree from a college or university.


            Each of these tests is timed, with the exception of the edTPA, although that must usually be completed within the one semester of student teaching in the vast majority of programs. No one reports having leftover time, they work right up to the last minute. The timing of when you must take the tests is dictated by individual programs. Some are required for admission, some after a certain number of credits, some prior to student teaching. The problem is if you fail, you are likely to be derailed from your progress in the program, which costs you more than just a retake. There are time limits on when you can retake the exams. Some students are also taking CLEP exams to compensate for missing undergraduate course requirements. Let’s just say that throughout your time in a teacher preparation program you are worrying about certification exams.


            The new exams are computer based, and cost more than the old exams. You will easily spend upwards of $1,000 on these exams. Even practice tests cost you $30. There were a handful of vouchers distributed to colleges for some exams, but not nearly enough to meet demands of those with financial aid. If you schedule an exam and need to cancel, you only get a partial rebate. If you want to contest your edTPA score, you must pay $200, which does not entitle you to a new evaluation, only to an internal investigation of the scoring process. It’s half as much to do a one-task retake, so that’s the likelier choice in the event you don’t have a passing score.


            There are now four exams required for initial certification. It seems they want to cover all the content of the preparation program, maybe so that eventually someone can circumvent a masters program altogether. The state says the tests measure “knowledge and skills that are necessary for service in the state’s schools.” The type of knowledge that can be measured in multiple choice and short essay questions is quite limited, and I think to assume the tests measure skill level accurately is really a stretch. There’s certainly no shortage of the encyclopedic factoids to invent as essential for teachers to know, so they will probably continue to invent new tests and questions ad infinitum.


            Teacher educators would like to know what makes these tests valid, what research has been done to show that those who pass are better teachers than those that don’t. Good luck Googling that! There is virtually no transparency regarding who designed and developed the exams, how and when they were piloted and normed, and zero studies on their validity.  The state provides vague details on the “standard setting committees”  and cut score processes, claims they were field tested, and that individuals on the committees are qualified to make these important determinations. Even without expertise in psychometrics, it’s easy to see that someone is trying to hide something.


            In order to be inexpensive to score, the format of the exams tends to be all about one right answer. Even in the edTPA, supposedly the most holistic of the exams, the rubrics and scoring guides are so rigid that there is virtually no room for human interpretation. Those exams that claim to measure writing skills are actually asking for robotic 5-paragraph essay style answers that having nothing to do with real writing. On multiple-choice questions, how is it possible to differentiate between a right answer and a good guess? It isn’t. It might just be a lucky guess.


            At least two of the exams are racially discriminatory, as Peter Goodman showed with data that was not made publically available back in November on his blog. “The pass rate for White test takers on the EAS was 82%, Non-White test takers 74%. The pass rate for White test takers on the ALST was 74%, Non-White test takers 55%.” You’d think that losing prior civil rights lawsuits over the old certification exam would prevent the state from continuing to take actions that reduce the diversity of the teacher workforce. You’d be wrong.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) 
            In my opinion, this is the absolute worst test on the planet. Touted by Governor Cuomo as the equivalent of an 8th grade reading and writing test (he should try taking my version), this new test has virtually no relationship to the previous test with the same letters in the acronym, the LAST, which attempted to measure liberal arts knowledge gained in college years. Instead, in 3.5 hours, you must answer 40 selected-response questions pertaining to reading passages, write two focused-response 200 word essays and one extended-response 400 word essay pertaining to pro/con reading passages and a graph or chart. Topics for the essay portion seem to have been selected by someone searching the tax code for the dullest “controversies” swimming in economic and legal jargon. Here’s a sample of two focused-responses and an extended-response to give you an idea. The state describes this as “complex and nuanced writing” but I think it could be used to cure insomnia. Results from the first 11,371 test takers  were just what the politicians hoped for: only 68% passed, and only 7% at the “mastery” level. Look at all those illiterate wanna-be teachers who can’t pass a middle school test!

The Educating All Students Test (EAS
At least the content of this 90 minute selected-response and constructed-response test pertains to something teachers care about – their students. Five areas are tested, but the two types of responses pertain to the three most important (according to the test creators): diverse student populations, English language learners, and students with disabilities and special learning needs. There are a few multiple-choice questions on teacher responsibilities and home-school relations. I fear that this test contributes to problematic notions that students who are multilingual or have disabilities should be flagged as potentially students of concern. Sample questions contain oversimplifications of classroom contexts as having a majority of students from “one culture” with a new minority “immigrant population” and use in-vogue terminology such as “culturally responsive” with little to no depth. Again, initial results from over 10,000 test takers had 77% passing, only 3% at the “mastery” level.

Content Specialty Tests (CSTs)
These are meant to cover all of the certification areas to ensure that physical education teachers, for example, know enough about physical education to teach it. The new versions of these tests are so new that there are people still waiting for their score results, promised in early 2015, because the state “standard setting committees” haven’t worked out the harder cut scores yet. You can’t make this stuff up. The latest information says scores will be released in spring.  Sample multiple choice questions on the arts and sciences portion of the four multi-subject tests taken by early childhood through high school teachers include a few doozies such as:
Running repeated sprints at maximum speed would be the most appropriate way to develop the endurance needed for successful participation in which sport? Choices are: American football, cross-country, basketball, and soccer. The correct answer is supposedly football, because “players undergo repeated bursts of intense activity…involving running short to medium distances at high speeds.” I don’t know much about football, but from what I have seen, linebackers seem to just block the opposing team’s linebackers. The best way to pick the football answer is actually to notice that the other three choices all obviously involve a considerable amount of running and therefore cancel each other out. Therefore the question is measuring test-taking knowledge rather than content knowledge.

Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA)
I have previously written extensively about problems with the Stanford’s SCALE developed/Pearson scored monster test that is taking over teacher education curriculum like an out-of-control garden weed. As one of two “edTPA Coordinator” faculty at Mercy College, I am increasingly convinced this belongs in induction, when teachers are not guests in another teacher’s classroom, because it is simply too burdensome and time-consuming to complete in a semester of student teaching. Two semesters of student teaching are not an option for most programs due to cost and working students who can ill-afford to give up employment for that length of time. Tales from the field include such horror stories as student teachers being told to complete TWO edTPAs so the best can be submitted, videos coded as unscoreable because of sound quality issues or even students’ full names visible on desks, complex classroom arrangements to obtain optimal video (how about the book storage closet?), confusion over the difference between language functions and forms, and a nightmare over official retake policies that, heaven forbid, might require additional classroom placements after student teaching is over and graduation requirements have been met. I’m sure college lawyers are on the phone right now comparing insurance policies and trying to figure out if non-matriculated students are covered or not.

In my statement during yesterday’s UUP press conference in Albany, I tried to convey the stark difference between what my students know, do, and write thoughtfully about and what is measured (supposedly) by these exams. I included the essay written by Sami-Beth Cohen who is currently student teaching in an excellent public school in Manhattan to share her rage and frustration with these policies and the inflammatory rhetoric of Governor Cuomo. Please add your voice to ours. Now that you’ve had my 101 course, I promote you to the next level: concerned citizen.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A Trip to Albany

Today United University Professions (UUP), the State University of New York (SUNY) union, held a news conference in Albany’s Legislative Office Building and called for an investigation of the State Education Department regarding the new state teacher licensure reforms. UUP President Fred Kowal invited teacher candidates, teacher educators, Board of Regents member Kathleen Cashin, and NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, and Tom Pinto, a parent of a teacher education student, to share their experiences with the new certification exams. I braved the snow and drove up to participate, and I'm so glad I did.
The press conference happened against a backdrop of growing public outcry regarding new Common Core aligned curriculum and tests, and Governor Cuomo’s draconian budget and education reform proposals. Yesterday, supporters of charter schools from SuccessAcademy, KIPP, and Achievement First descended on Albany while teacher unions held their own rallies
As the education debates heat up, the teacher education debacle has to fight for any attention from the public, but as Tom Pinto passionately pointed out today, many families with college students who have admirably chosen teaching as their calling, find the new exams, implemented without the customary trial period and with obvious intent to increase failure rates, cause intense frustration of dreams derailed, new obstacles and financial hardship. Julie Gorlewski of SUNY New Paltz outlined the most serious concerns with the edTPA rollout and its negative impact on a diverse teaching force, saying it “will contribute to the creation of a teaching profession that is increasingly whiter and wealthier than the students it serves.”

            Below is a copy of my statement, and a commentary by one of my current student teachers, Sami-Beth Cohen, that she gave to me to share at the press conference. I strongly urge my readers and their friends to add their voices to the debate, to write letters to policymakers and legislators, to Governor Cuomo, to comment on media articles and multimedia coverage of these events, and to make some noise before budget decisions are finalized at the end of the month.
“We ask schools to promote equality while preserving privilege, so we perpetuate a system that is too busy balancing opposites to promote student learning.”
                    David Labaree, 2010

          The degree to which we are setting up our educational institutions for failure in the United States is unprecedented. To satisfy the public’s need to believe that education can mean a better life and greater opportunities for success and happiness, we promote the idea that all citizens should be entitled to a meaningful education. We look for easy targets to blame when our lofty goals of equal opportunity fail to materialize as we had hoped. At the same time, those with privilege, power, and financial security seek to protect their self-interests to ensure those advantages will endure for generations to come. As David Labaree has written of schooling, “We want it to meet the ambitions of our children and also to protect them from the ambitions of other people’s children” (2010, p. 6).
            The dominant American value of competition has led to standardized testing being misused throughout our educational system, even as we acknowledge it is a flawed measure of quality. The testing industry is expanding exponentially, with more tests and more expensive ways to administer and score those tests, than ever before. We endlessly rank, sort, compare, rewarding the winners and humiliating and punishing the losers. Inevitably, those in the bottom seek desperate measures to improve in a contest that must result in failure for some. We know that these high stakes lead to undesirable consequences such as reduced learning, cheating, skewed priorities, and more inequity.
            At Mercy College I am blessed to work with teachers seeking to make a difference in the lives of children. It may seem corny and idealistic to a cynic, but these are people who have known hardship and have been positively influenced by teachers who helped them both academically and socially. They want to pay it forward, to work in their high-poverty communities inside schools that desperately need teachers who understand both how to reach children and inspire them, and how to teach them in ways that will leave a lasting impression. They embrace the challenges and opportunities afforded them in these highly diverse classrooms.
            The botched implementation of licensure reforms for new teachers in New York State has created havoc in its wake. Exams that lack requisite validity from pilot testing and analysis, with unreasonably high cut scores, have created financial hardship, low morale, and have little to do with the goals and values of improving teaching and learning. Peter Goodman provided data not publically available from early testing results that shows two of the exams, the EAS and ALST, are racially discriminatory. “The exams are not only reducing the diversity of our teaching force,” he wrote last November on his Ed in the Apple blog, “the exams ignore standards set by prior court decisions.”
These exams are not benign. They also don’t tell us what we need to know about prospective teachers. Consider these two stories, both from real examples:

A first year teacher, despairing at the learning needs of her first graders, declares to colleagues in the staff room that she has a class of “ones” even though those students will not take the state standardized tests in math and language arts scored from one to four until third grade.

A student teacher asks a second grade girl to put away her journal for quiet reading time, and notices the girl has hidden the journal inside her book. She has written, “I want to die.” Working with a paraprofessional because the cooperating teacher is absent that day, they discover the girl is a victim of ongoing harsh bullying. In talking with the girl, they confront the bullies, work on conflict resolution, and enable the girl to spend time with the school counselor to determine the types of support she needs in her moment of crisis.

No exam, no matter how cleverly designed, can assess whether a teacher would behave as the first year teacher did, or as the student teacher did. Yet clearly we want teachers in our schools who have sufficient knowledge, experience, and personal qualities that would treat all students with kindness and compassion, and would recognize the strengths and abilities of each and every student they are charged with teaching. The stark contrast between the type of technical writing one sees on the licensure exams and the deeply personal reflective writing that is typical of teacher education coursework is indicative of the comparison between the two teachers in my stories.
            What we are witnessing in these unprecedented times in education is an erosion of trust. We know that trust is the glue that holds our schools and communities together, especially in tough times. We need a diverse teaching force because we have diverse groups of students in our schools who need teachers they can trust. We may not be able to easily fix funding inequities, and variation in institutional supports and resources, but we can certainly fight the obstacles and barriers that prevent the hopes and aspirations of future teachers from becoming realized.


Labaree, D. (2010). Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Statement by Sami-Beth Cohen
M.S.Ed '15, Mercy College

A few days ago, for the first time, I felt truly discouraged about the possibility of teaching. I am not discouraged by the seemingly insurmountable odds of educating children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, faiths, intellectual capacities, with various (occasionally horrific) personal histories and experiences that I will face. I am not discouraged by long hours, low pay or complex challenges. I am not discouraged by the extreme lack of resources with which public school teachers are forced to grapple. I am not intimidated or discouraged by any of these factors, because I am an intelligent, hard-working, dedicated and passionate person who will be working alongside other such individuals. Together, we can accomplish so much. This I know.
I am, however, discouraged by our governor. Our governor, who has spent next to no time in classrooms, sees it fit to make sweeping, inaccurate generalizations about teachers. Our governor, who is not an educator, but thinks he knows how we should do our jobs. I have a college education and an advanced degree in my field. I have taken many certification exams and passed them all. I am fully capable of doing the job I have trained for over the last four years of my continuing education. Yet Governor Cuomo still believes the deficit lies with me.
How is it that educators who have chosen to work in the most challenging, difficult environments end up being punished for that choice? How am I supposed to educate children who didn't sleep in a bed last night, didn't eat breakfast and don't have clean clothing? I recently spoke with a teacher who had moved from a large urban district to a suburban one. In her old, urban school, around 50% of her students passed the standardized tests, whereas at her new school, 96% of her students passed. Did she suddenly become 46% more effective, simply by changing districts? Of course not. The difference is that she began working with a population that had infinitely more resources and attention dedicated to it.
My first job in education was at a school with the highest percentage of children living in homeless shelters in the city of New York. Routinely, children would miss several school days a week. They would lose their placement in their current shelter and have to move to another, often in another borough. This causes an unimaginable amount of stress on both children and families. Not having a place to call home is especially traumatizing for a child.   This is only one example of what teachers must consider when they walk into work each morning. This is in addition to lesson plans, assessments, differentiating material, and addressing all types of learners. How is it not obvious that the deficit doesn't lie with the teachers, but with the deplorable reality in which improvised people exist? Closing such a school...firing teachers...this is so misguided I cannot even fathom it. For these kids, their teachers are some of the only constants in their lives. Take away a trusted teacher and they have no one. Closing their schools often means that in addition to all of the other hardships suffered, these children now spend upwards of 45 minutes commuting to and from their schools each day. Sounds awesome, if your goal is to make it impossible to succeed! 
Governor, if you cannot see how the logic of punishing teachers for working in difficult conditions is entirely flawed, perhaps the faulty cog in the machine has been identified once and for all: you.

PS- I voted for you four years ago and have come to really regret that choice. You look like Frankenstein. Just an FYI!