ETS to Replace Students with Avatars in Teacher Certification Exams

When I first saw this posted in a Badass Teachers Instagram I thought it was a joke. It was a little funny, but really too ridiculous to believe. Maybe we will have avatars in a science fiction world, but why here and now when we can train and evaluate teachers working with real students in real schools, the kind of real students they will actually have to teach.

But I turns out it wasn't a joke. The Educational Testing Service, searching for a way to compete with the Pearson/SCALE edTPA actually proposes to replace students with avatars in teacher certification exams.

In previous posts I have complained about the Pearson/SCALE edTPA. New York State requires that certification candidates complete four exams either created or administered by Pearson. Three are written exams and one involves the complex edTPA portfolio submission. edTPA was created at Stanford University by a sub-division called SCALE and is administered and graded by Pearson. Originally it was intended as an evaluation of experienced teachers approaching tenure, not as an evaluation of student teachers. 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.

edTPA is bad, but the ETS Avatar is much worse. Just because technology makes something possible, it does not make it a good idea.

According to the ETS website, "What makes the ETS® NOTE assessment series truly ground breaking is that it is an innovative assessment program designed to evaluate a prospective teacher's ability to translate their knowledge of content and of teaching into effective practice in the classroom. Created by ETS in collaboration with TeachingWorks, the NOTE assessments are intended to fit with the work of state education systems and educator preparation programs. This new, innovative assessment series will measure a teaching candidate's readiness to teach in ways that are representative of real-life teaching experiences." Supposedly it "Provides a rigorous, on-the-spot assessment that evaluates candidates seeking initial teacher licensure." Instead of real life teaching practice, student teachers will be tested on "real-life scenarios" in "virtual classrooms with interactive avatar students." ETS claims "The use of virtual classrooms not only supports greater standardization of instructional contexts and settings for candidates, but also eliminates disruption to classroom activities, curriculum and student learning that occurs in schools."

But schools are not standardized because students are not standardized. Students are human beings, not avatars. A major part of learning to be a teacher is learning to respect and deal with students as human beings. Big parts of teaching are connection, concern, empathy, judgment, decision-making, and adjusting to "disruption to classroom activities."

There is a very funny scene in the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon Cooper is learning to drive using an online program. After a series of crashes, his avatar ends up driving onto the second floor of a mall. They meant it as a comment on Sheldon, but it is also a good comment on the efficacy of learning to drive through an online program.

Do we really want teachers tested on avatars teaching our children? If it were a joke, it would be a little funny. But as a real proposal it is frightening. This project, and maybe every ETS project, should be shut down.

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