Another Pearson Test Fiasco in the Making

New York State and Pearson are on the verge of another testing fiasco. I expect lawsuits to fly as testing rules on edTPA portfolios for teacher certification are changed ex post facto, or after the fact.

The New York State teacher certification exam, known as edTPA, was created at Stanford University by a sub-division called SCALE and is administered and graded by Pearson. Essentially SCALE, Pearson, and New York State decided to replace student teacher evaluations by university field supervisors and cooperating teachers with an electronic portfolio, supposedly to ensure higher standards.

The SCALE/Pearson edTPA electronic portfolio includes lesson planning, a discussion of student teaching placement sites, videos of candidates interacting with K-12 students, their personal assessment of the lesson, and documentation of student learning. While each piece by itself makes sense, the package, which focuses on just three lessons and can be sixty pages long, takes so much time to complete that it detracts from the ability of student teachers to learn what they are supposed to learn, which is how to be effective beginning teachers who connect with students and help students achieve.

Another problem with edTPA is that its portfolios are formulistic. Once teacher education candidates figure out what has to go in, they just plug it in. Passing and mastery rates are very high, essentially lowering the previous standard set by field supervisors and cooperating teachers. In addition, New York State has been unable or unwilling to establish the reliability (do similar submissions receive similar scores) or validity (does it actually measure teaching performance) of the exam, so it now offers a relatively easy backdoor "safety net" exam to the few people that actually fail edTPA.

Meanwhile, Pearson, Inc. is already under fire because previous versions of some New York State teacher certification exams designed by a Pearson sub-division were discredited by the courts and for hiring temporary evaluators with questionable credential to grade edTPA.

The next Pearson testing fiasco in New York State revolves around the discovery that teacher certification candidates appear to be submitting remarkably similar electronic portfolios. On July 23, 2015, John D'Agati, Deputy Commissioner in the Office of Higher Education issued a memorandum basically accusing candidates of cheating, ordering them not to share portfolios with "other candidates at any time," announcing that portfolios would be reviewed by "originality detection software," and threatening that people with too similar submissions would be suspected of improper "moral character" and possibly denied certification. The memo from D'Agati refers to another memo dated November 25, 2013, but of course that earlier memo had nothing to do with this problem.

One reason for the similarities is quite innocent. The amazing thing is that the State Education Department is apparently unaware of their own instructional guidelines. Candidates are teaching the same state mandated curriculum, especially in English and Math, where they are required in many school districts to follow guidelines and use Common Core aligned lessons from the state's EngageNY website.

Deputy Commissioner D'Agati also seems to be unaware that his latest memorandum directly contradicts portfolio preparation instructions distributed by SCALE and Pearson. edTPA Guidelines for Acceptable Candidate Support make clear that "professional conversations about teaching and learning associated with the outcomes assessed in edTPA are expected and encouraged." Teacher education programs are "encouraged to help candidates examine expectations for performance evaluated by edTPA in meaningful ways and discuss how they will demonstrate their performance in relation to those expectations." Specifically, "Preparation for edTPA offers many collegial opportunities for candidates to share and discuss (italics added for emphasis) responses to practice activities. The primary limitation is that university faculty cannot edit student edTPA portfolios, provide candidates with alternative or corrected responses, or direct student teachers which video segments they should submit for evaluation.

The statement on the "originality of submission" for teacher education candidates does not forbid students from planning lessons together or looking at each other's portfolios. They only attest that "I am the person who has completed the assessment, that I have primary responsibility for teaching the students/class during the learning segment profiled in this assessment, that the video clip(s) submitted show me teaching the students/class profiled, that the student work included in the documentation is that of my students and completed during the learning segment documented in this assessment, that I am the sole author of the commentaries and other written responses to prompts and other requests for information in this assessment, and that I have cited all materials in the assessment whose sources are from published text, the internet, or other educators."

The real problem is that the SCALE/Pearson edTPA is a monstrosity that should be abandoned. It has generated an online industry of test preparation companies that will use the same "originality detection software" to make sure that the edTPA portfolios they "help" prepare avoid detection. The only people "caught" in this ridiculous and probably illegal tracking proposed by New York State Education will be candidates who innocently followed test directions and worked with other students in their classes to prepare their lesson plans and portfolios.

Two of the most prominent companies on the Internet are edTPA Preparation Tutors and edTPA Tutoring.

edTPA Preparation Tutors advertises that "Students who have developed their package (tasks, responses, videos) for edTPA can have our experts look at material and provide constructed feedback. edTPA tutors will review the tasks and responses generated and provide feedback on improvements, potential scores, and missing elements." They brag "This service is a comprehensive, which means we will be providing assistance until you have reached completion of edTPA. This includes understanding edTPA, reviewing responses tasks, answering all questions, developing content, and assisting with submissions" and promise "100% Satisfaction Guarantee" and "100% Passing Rate on EDTPA submissions." Cost varies depending on the level of help that is needed to pass edTPA so they invite candidates to contact them for pricing. "Want us to complete your edTPA? Chat with agent for more details!!!"

edTPA Tutoring is even more blatant about what it offers. They charge $2,200 for their most "comprehensive" tutorial package. "At this level we begin where are you and help you until you complete your edTPA. This level includes the services of two levels above. You send us your videos, lessons and student work. We do the rest."

New York State has already refused to renew its grade 3 to 8 English and Math Common Core testing contract with Pearson, but for some reason the State Education Department remains committed to edTPA. Now, instead of addressing the companies that are undercutting the Pearson electronic portfolio, it is undermining teacher education in the state by branding future teachers morally suspect for collaborating with their colleagues.