12/11/2012 10:34 am ET

California School Administrators To Take Tougher Test For Credentials

This piece comes to us courtesy of EdSource, an independent education nonprofit.

Alone among states, California has permitted passing a primarily multiple-choice exam as one path to become a school or district administrator.

That will change. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) on Friday voted to require aspiring administrators to pass a more challenging “performance-based assessment,” showing how they’d handle complex situations that administrators face on the job, like designing a school improvement plan and evaluating teachers. The new test will replace the current exam, the California Preliminary Administrative Credential Examination, when the contract for administering it expires in October 2014.

Over the past five years, about one in five administrators has chosen the “expedited” route of taking an exam for a preliminary administrative credential, although last year it jumped to 30 percent: 988 of 3,246 new administrative credentials. For now, the performance assessment requirement will apply only to those choosing the exam path, instead of the more traditional and prevalent route in which teachers who want to become administrators attend a university program part-time over two or three years.

However, as part of its action on Friday, the CTC asked staff to look at extending the performance assessment to university-based administrative credentialing programs, too. California was the first state to require graduates of teacher credentialing programs to pass a performance assessment, and it’s become a model for other states. A universal performance assessment for administrators is probably a matter of time. Stanford University School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who champions the universal performance assessment, said in an interview that extending performance assessments to university credentialing programs would have a side benefit: The results could serve as one measure of the effectiveness of the programs themselves and as “leverage” for requiring improvement in order for the programs to receive accreditation.

The commission’s action reflects its determination to see that school administrators are more rigorously prepared, from day one, for the increasingly demanding job of principal and assistant principal. The September report of Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s Task Force on Educator Excellence also recommended creating a performance assessment for administrators-in-waiting. The co-chair of that 48-member group was Darling-Hammond, who on Friday was also elected the CTC’s chair.

CTC and task force members hope that additional preparation and a more uniform and thorough process of mentoring new principals and assistant principals during the period leading to a final or “clear” credential will better position site leaders to handle the added responsibilities of managing school change. They’re also hoping that better preparation may help with retention. The task force report cited a California State University, Northridge survey that found that only 38 percent of administrative credentialing graduates were working as administrators, and a quarter were considering leaving administration. Administrators cited inadequate support on the job as one reason, along with pay and long hours.

In testimony on Friday, representatives of the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators endorsed the idea of performance assessments for all administrative credentials. However, Sharon Robison, a retired superintendent who is ACSA’s liaison to the CTC, reiterated that the expedited route to become an administrator, via an exam, must remain an option. The pool of candidates for becoming administrator is becoming shallow, she said, but there are mid-career teachers with outstanding experience as curriculum specialists, teacher coaches and site leaders who would be excellent candidates for a credential. Yet they aren’t interested in returning to school to obtain it. “Watering down the credential is not the issue,” she told me.


Advocates for a performance assessment have pointed to the Connecticut Administrator Test, a 6½ hour exam that was designed to be a minimum competency test. It measures candidates’ potential in the areas of school improvement and instructional leadership with questions that place them in the role of administrator. For example, they’re shown a 12-minute video of a teacher in a classroom and asked to evaluate the instruction techniques.

The current state test attempted to get candidates to reflect on these issues through extended multiple-choice questions. It also tested knowledge of the state’s standards for administrators. What’s unclear by following Friday’s vote is whether there will still be a need for a test that measures knowledge in areas that administrators are expected to know: key state and federal laws, collective bargaining issues and best practices and state regulations affecting budgets, special education and English learners.

The CTC may develop the performance assessment on its own or hire a contractor to write or administer it. Darling-Hammond said that the state could perhaps learn from other states, such as Massachusetts, which is writing its own performance assessment.

Performance assessments are just one piece of larger changes in the works for administrative credentialing. The CTC staff is currently rewriting the state standards for administrators, a draft of which will go before the commission in 2013. The commission also is looking to establish a uniform, comprehensive system of training and mentoring new site administrators once they have their preliminary credential. This phase, called induction, would be comparable to the mentoring program in place for teachers: BTSA, Beginning Teacher Support and Assistance. No formal, statewide system of accredited induction providers currently exists for administrators completing their “clear” administrative credential.