10/07/2013 11:01 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Anger in the Heartland Over Unfair Teacher Tests

Cortland, New York is dairy country. The town and the State University of New York campus in Cortland are surrounded by dairy farms. Many of the students at the college come from the local area. This is where they grew up and this is where they want to stay. Many plan to become teachers in the local schools. But there is anger brewing in this heartland community over unfair new teacher tests.

On October 1 and 2, I visited SUNY-Cortland and nearby SUNY-Oneonta where I was invited to discuss corporate influence over education policy in the United States, the new teacher certifications, and the implications of common core standards for classroom practice. At both campuses I spoke with packed crowds and as is usually the case, I think I learned more from them than they learned from me.

At Cortland the opposition to unfair teaching tests was more pronounced and better organized. Students are outraged at the attitude of the governor toward public school students and teachers. Instead of providing money and support to struggling schools and school districts, as is his constitutional responsibility, he outrageously called for the "death-penalty" for poorly performing schools.

Prospective teachers are also deeply upset by the governor's call to raise the grade point average needed for admission into teacher education programs at the State University. They worked hard for their grades and to become teachers, but some started out in other majors where they did not perform as well and feel they are being unjustly penalized. They also demanded to know what evidence there is that a higher grade point average actually makes you a better teacher. One student in the audience claimed Governor Cuomo would fail the common core exams because he expressed opinions without providing supporting evidence. Another shouted out, "Show me the Carfax."

Two of the pre-service teachers, Melissa Howard and Ryan Aldrich, both undergraduates at SUNY-Cortland, organized an online petition protesting against a new portfolio submission for teacher certification that requires a teaching video. It is scheduled to go into affect in May 2014.

They protested against the cost of this submission and other mandated tests that they estimate at $500 per student. They also protested against the plan itself, which is being implemented and evaluated by the private testing mega-giant Pearson.

Howard and Aldrich charged that the guidelines for the video are unclear, the wording is vague, and the requirements contradict best practice in the educational literature. They do not understand how a company like Pearson with a history of testing irregularities was put in charge of teacher certification in New York State.

The petition included a series of questions about issues they find the most troubling.

Who is evaluating our work?

Are the people evaluating our work qualified enough to do so? How long are scorers taking to evaluate our work?

We have seen that they have two hours - is that really enough time?

Are we ever going to receive feedback about our assessment from Pearson?

Are we responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of our students in videos even after we have completed student teaching?

Howard and Aldrich demanded the suspension of edTPA as a certification requirement until it has gone through multiple levels of pilot testing. Along with other SUNY-Cortland students they sent letters to members of the State Assembly Education Committee hoping they would be willing to discuss the matter.

The anger in the heartland is more than justified. An examination of the guidelines for new teacher certification exams published on the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations website raises even more questions about the validity of the tests.

The sample reading passage from the ALAST (Academic Literacy Skills Test), a test supposedly designed to assess the "academic literacy" of prospective teachers is about Gertrude Stein who operated a salon for artists in Paris during the 1920s. The passage has nothing to do with teaching, the evaluation of students, or the knowledge teachers are expected to possess. Even worse, like other Pearson developed tests the questions people are expected to answer are ambiguous and the choices are confusing.

One questions asks readers:

The sentence below appears in Paragraph 2:

It was that her way of thinking and seeing, her curiosity about the collision of old and new, was perfectly tuned for a moment when Europe was, cataclysmically, struggling with that collision.

Which phrase is closest in meaning to the word "cataclysmically" as it is used in the sentence above?

a. with furious upheaval
b. with unrelenting violence
c. with reckless abandon
d. with shocking suddenness

The question calls for the opinion of the reader, not the identification of a fact, and all of these choices are potentially correct. However for Pearson, there is only one right choice. The only acceptable answer is "A."

According to the test guide, "This item requires examinees to interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text. As it is used in this sentence, the word cataclysmically refers to the cultural upheaval resulting from the clash between a traditional way of life and the new sensibilities that found expression in the work of modernist writers and artists."

Meanwhile, according to the New York State teacher certification website, the edTpa content test and video guidelines are still in drafted form and were last updated in August 6, 2013. The site includes the warning:

"The materials posted here are revised drafts. The information in these documents is expected to change, and any changes will fully supersede the information contained in this draft. Subsequent revised versions will be posted here as they become available."

According to the latest "draft" posted at the AACTE edTPA Resource Library website:

In one-to-three unedited video segments totally twenty minute, student teachers must demonstrate classroom "respect and rapport." Candidates are told "As you go through your footage, you will want to find clips that not only feature respectful interactions between your students and you but also among your students." Candidates must also "demonstrate a positive learning environment that supports and challenges students;" "show active engagement of students in their own understanding of the concepts, skills, and/or processes related to the learning objectives;" demonstrate how they are "deepening student understanding;" and provide a "subject-specific pedagogical focus."

As the students at Cortland said, while it may be possible to do these things in three video clips totally twenty minutes if they had some idea what these things actually look like in real classroom practice, they are going into the test blind.

According to the edTPA website, current members of the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium (TPAC) include Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Teacher, students, and parents in these states need to contact politicians quickly because edTPA is supposed to go into effect in May 2014.

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