Facing a teacher shortage, Texas considers a more rigorous teacher certification exam

Fifth graders at Jacobs Well Elementary School in Wimberley lineup at the door as they prepare to walk back to their classroom from the science lab on September 4, 2020. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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At a time when more Texas teachers are leaving the classroom, the state’s licensing board is considering a new certification exam that could help better prepare new teachers — and perhaps help keep them longer in the job.

On Friday, the 11-member State Board for Educator Certification will vote on whether to adopt the Educative Teacher Performance Assessment, also known as the edTPA exam. This new licensing test, developed at Stanford University, requires teachers to submit answers to essay questions and provide a sample lesson plan, a 15-minute video of themselves teaching in the classroom and a report on their students’ progress.

If approved, the move would mean ditching the old Pedagogy and Professional Responsibilities exam, a test of 100 multiple choice questions that has been in use since 2002.

“This is about how we make sure that those [teacher] candidates are getting the support and coaching that they need and they deserve to be effective and to stay in the profession,” said Jonathan Feinstein, state director of The Education Trust, which advocates for historically underserved students.

The edTPA will especially be a boost for alternative certification programs, he said, which sent nearly 50% of the newly certified teachers into the classroom during the 2020-21 year, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.

Two months ago, John P. Kelly, who sits on the state’s teacher certification board, called this exam vote a “very momentous” decision.

“I’ve been praying and hoping that we would reach a conclusion that is best for the teachers and the students of this great state,” Kelly said. If the test is adopted at Friday’s board meeting, the State Board of Education would still have to approve it at its next meeting in June before it could go into effect.

Critics of the PPR teacher certification exam have pointed out its makeup is a less-than-precise way of testing a new teacher’s potential. All 100 questions on the test are multiple choice, making it easier to pass.

Frank Ward, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, called the current exam a “flawed” measure of teacher readiness. “Fortunately, there’s a proven alternative,” he said “[The] edTPA goes well beyond asking questions that aren't designed to demonstrate how effective a teacher will be in his or her first year in the classroom.”

If the edTPA is approved Friday and then by the State Board of Education, with a vote most likely taking place in June, it will start as an optional test in 2022-23. It will be required as a pass/fail exam in 2023-24 and fully implemented in 2024-25.

Not everyone is a fan, though.

At least 17 states use the edTPA as their required certification exam. In 21 others, the edTPA is used as an option for teacher preparation programs. It is more expensive, costing nearly $200 more than the current Texas teacher’s licensing exam, which experts say creates another barrier.

In two instances, the edTPA has been adopted as a statewide exam and then scrapped altogether.

In New York, Black test-takers were nearly twice as likely to fail the edTPA compared with their white or Hispanic peers. The state recently stopped using the exam, saying students were trying to finish the edTPA requirements rather than learning from student teaching, and they found it challenging to complete the multifaceted aspect of it.

In Washington state, a 2016 study showed Hispanic teacher candidates were more than three times as likely to fail the exam when compared with white candidates. The state scrapped the exam last year.

In Georgia, the state parted ways with the edTPA exam as education officials called it a barrier of entry to the profession. Educator programs in the state can still require students to take the edTPA, but it is not required to be certified.

In New Jersey, teacher unions are calling for the end of the exam.

And in Illinois, lawmakers have made efforts to get rid of the assessment as well for all the same reasons. The edTPA in the state has been paused due to the pandemic.

In a July 2021 study, researchers found that the exam reduced the number of students graduating as teachers and had adverse effects on student learning.

Ryan Franklin, senior director of policy and advocacy at Educate Texas, said some states had an uneven rollout for the exam and others just didn’t see the need for it anymore.

He said the same can happen in Texas. If, down the line, edTPA has served its goal and there is another, better way to prepare teachers, the state can look at those options.

When Doug Hamman, professor and director of teacher education at Texas Tech University, first heard that edTPA was coming to Texas, he saw the same studies and he wasn’t sold. But he knew that if the state was considering the test, his program needed to be prepared.

Texas Tech is one of 40 programs piloting the exam, testing it out for the past three years. In Hamman’s experience, the exam has made Texas Tech’s education program better.

“Having teachers demonstrate that they have mastered what they’re supposed to be is not a bad thing,” he said

Gina Anderson, associate dean for educator preparation and partnerships at Texas Woman’s University, said her program, like others around the state, already provides a performance assessment-based student-teaching experience. She thinks making the edTPA a requirement will take away from what these teaching programs are supposed to do, which is to help a student cultivate relationships and gain meaningful lessons. Instead, she believes that the classroom teaching experience will be diluted as instructors work harder on teaching students how to pass the test.

“[Our program] is meant to provide formative support and help educators grow in their practice, rather than to be used kind of as a high-stakes decision at the very end of their program,” Anderson said.

Anderson also takes issue with the video that students are supposed to record. She says it provides only a snapshot of someone’s teaching skills in a classroom, but it could be the difference between becoming a teacher or not.

In Texas, people who want to become a teacher but did not get a degree in education can do so in about a year through the state’s alternative certification program. But a four-year degree program gives its students an opportunity to be student teachers.

If the edTPA is approved, Feinstein, with The Education Trust, said alternative certification providers will have more incentive to provide yearlong support and instruction so people can pass the exam.

Feinstein equates the edTPA model to football teams going back and watching film to improve. “We’re trying to get as close as we can to understand what does a teacher really need to be ready to do to be successful,” he said.

Some say the new exam could help with Texas’ teacher shortage issue. Gov. Greg Abbott has made solving the state’s shortage a priority and launched a task force in March.

Supporters of the edTPA say it will better support and retain new teachers as it can pinpoint exactly what a teacher lacks through the video recordings and written analyses provided.

Hamman at Texas Tech believes the new exam will improve college education programs overall. Initially, he had his reservations about the new exam, but now he believes it’s the way to move forward.

“What the edTPA does is it forces weak programs to become stronger or perish,” Hamman said.

The current exam, he said, requires little preparation by comparison.

“It was an easy test,” he said.

But many are convinced the edTPA will create more barriers for people of color entering the teaching profession.

Andrea Chevalier, a lobbyist with the Association for Texas Professional Educators, said the edTPA will constrict teaching programs that are excelling with their preparation programs. And instead of making the edTPA a statewide requirement, the state should allow for programs to pick whether they want to use it to prepare their students.

“Doing it that way would be a sweet spot because it would give flexibility to programs,” Chevalier said.

Disclosure: Educate Texas, Texas Tech University and The Education Trust have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.