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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/23/2012

Ed Dept seeks to bring test-based assessment to teacher prep programs

The Obama administration wants to expand the use of standardized test scores as an accountability tool from K-12 into higher education.

The Education Department just tried — and failed — to persuade a group of negotiators to agree to regulations that would rate colleges of education in large part on how K-12 students being taught by their graduates perform on standardized tests. As part of this scheme, financial aid to students in these programs would not be based entirely on need but, rather, would also be linked to test scores.

The department’s plans assume that standardized test scores can reliably and validly be used for such accountability purposes . Most researchers in this field say they can’t — for a number of reasons, including the limitations of the tests themselves — and therefore shouldn’t be used for any high stakes decision in education anywhere. They say that making test scores so important is one of the negative consequences of the last decade of No Child Left Behind, and shouldn’t be continued.

But the Education Department thinks otherwise and has been pushing this kind of evaluation as a centerpiece of its school reform initiatives. In order to win federal funds, a number of states have approved new K-12 educator assessment systems that rely heavily on these “value added” formulas — which purport to be able to ascertain the amount of “value” a teacher adds to a student achievement based on test scores.

And now, the Education Department has higher ed in its sights.

Department officials put together a group of several dozen people to “negotiate” on proposed regulations on colleges of education, which have come under scrutiny as the issue of “teacher quality” has become front and center in the school reform movement.

Teacher quality, of course, is important. There are teachers in classrooms today who shouldn’t be, and there are teacher preparation programs that should be closed. The question is how to go about improving the situation.

Specifically department officials are proposing regulations that would rate teacher prep programs into four tiers through a number of measures — though heavily weighted — on standardized test scores. Only programs in the top two tiers would be allowed to offer federally funded teaching grants for students who agree to teach in high-poverty schools.

Some of the negotiators turned out not to be as infatuated with the highly controversial “value-added” assessment methods as are department officials. They believe there are better, fairer ways to determine quality of teachers and colleges of education.

When it became clear that some of the negotiators weren’t going to go along with the basic outlines of the department’s plan, department officials ended the negotiations over a conference call.

But don’t think that is the end of the effort.

Now we can expect Obama administration officials to issue regulations doing what they want — without congressional approval, or, for that matter, without having persuaded a group of negotiators they had selected themselves that what they want to do makes educational sense.

It should be noted that administration officials say that there is evidence to show that “value added” formulas can work for assessment. Justin Hamilton, press secretary for Education Arne Duncan, said in an email that some of the negotiators pointed to this evidence: “Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee have already implemented it and their work has been closely studied and documented.... And all the RTTT [Race to the Top] states are in process.”

Most researchers on the subject, however, have warned strongly against using value-added formulas for high stakes decisions of any kind in part because there is too much variability in the results. Good teachers can be evaluated poorly; and poor teachers can be evaluated as effective, they say, hardly a way to go about improving the teaching corps.

Let’s look at how this would work in another field. Take doctors. What if they were measured by the number of patients they save — and then the medical school where they trained gets graded on those numbers? And to top it off, student financial aid at medical schools become dependent on those numbers, too.

How do you think medical schools which seek to serve high need, high risk populations would fare in comparison to medical schools that produce doctors for the healthy and wealthy?

This point was not lost on minority-serving institutions, including the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, who called foul loud and clear in letters sent to the department. Other educational organizations, including groups of deans from well-respected colleges of education, all sent in concerns about the proposed regulations, including:

* They are a big expansion of the federal role in assessing teacher training programs. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, it is the states that have been given the authority by statutue to evaluate and penalize teacher prep programs.

* They would require states and teacher preparation programs to report to the federal government on data that most do not currently have the ability to collect.

* They would require states to implement assessment programs that are costly, without providing any federal funds to help.

For the negotiations, the Education Department picked the negotiating team — and some of the selections, as well as the omissions, are interesting.

One might assume that one organization that would be selected to negotiate on the issue of colleges of teacher education would be the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. It wasn’t. Neither was the American Council of Education, the nonprofit organization that represents presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities.

Who was? Among the groups selected were Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that places new college graduates into needy classrooms with only five weeks of training. It has been a favorite of the Education Department, winning millions of dollars in federal grant month. And its founder Wendy Kopp, has been lavishly praised by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Also on the negotiating team was James G. Cibulka, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). He took on the role of trying to reach consensus on the panel, holding informal meetings with the dissenters to try to win them over.

It should be noted that he heads the only remaining accreditor of teacher preparation/teacher education programs (a result of a merger between NCATE and the other specialized teacher accreditor, TEAC), and that he will thus be coming before the Department of Education’s panel – the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity — in the near future. This committee confers recognition to accreditors, and it’s rigorous scrutiny is something accreditors tend to dread because recognition equals legitimacy, rigor, and value.

It should also be noted that Cibulka had several institutional negotiators at the table who will be coming before his organization for re-accreditation within the next several months.

The negotiations frustrated some of the people involved — and some who weren’t invited.

“The Department of Education’s attempt to make sweeping higher education policy changes in 7 ½ days of negotiations, and ultimately, to make regulations via conference call makes a train wreck look well-planned,” said Becky Timmons, assistant vice president for government relations of the American Council on Education.

Apart from how the negotiations were conducted, the insistence of the department to pursue initiatives involving highly controversial assessment methods continues to astound people who had expected President Obama to make a sharp break from the No Child Left Behind mentality rather than to exacerbate some of its worst effects.

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