Another Brick in the Wall: High Stakes Testing in Teacher Education - The California Teacher Performance Assessment


By Perry M. Marker

Ph.D. Sonoma State University


A paper presented at American Educational Studies Association

2002 Annual Meeting

Omni William Penn Hotel

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

October 30-November 3, 2002


We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teacher leave the kids alone

Hey teacher leave us kids alone

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall

All in a all you’re just another brick in the wall

Roger Waters, 1979


“ In speech after speech, it is our corporate CEO’s who state that an educated, literate work force is the key to American competitiveness. They pontificate on the importance of education. They point out their magnanimous corporate contributions to education in one breath, and then they pull the tax base out from under the local schools in the next. Business criticizes the job our local schools are doing and then proceed to nail down every tax break they can get, further eroding the school’s ability to do the job”  (in Bracy,  2002)   Former Senator Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio

Roger Waters wrote these words for 70’s rock icons Pink Floyd before it became fashionable in to place the blame for education’s “failures” on the shoulders of our teachers. In today’s world,   blaming teachers for the education’s perceived “failures” is part of the conservative culture of criticism that has made teachers the culprit in every imaginable aspect of education decline.

We blame P -12  teachers and university professors for the “failure” of the schools. We blame them on a lot of levels. We blame their professional teacher education; we blame what they teach; we blame how they teach. The simplistic, and punitive reform efforts that have resulted  in  the creation standards and the development of high stakes testing  reflect the fact that, for over twenty years, teachers in public schools and institutions of higher education have been blamed for all that is wrong with education.

This paper will briefly explore the context for standards in public schools and universities in California,  and the relationship between standards and the latest volley in the quest for standardization of the curriculum - now aimed at teacher education -  the California “Teacher Performance Assessment.”

The Initiative Process: a non-deliberative democracy

     In 1975, the passage of Proposition 13 (Jarvis-Gann) is a germane way of dividing the post World War II  California,  between that postwar  exhilaration -- with its huge investment in the public infrastructure era and its strong commitment to the development of quality education systems and other services -- and a generation of declining confidence and shrinking public services (Schrag, pp. 10-11). The squeeze on public services that Proposition 13  brought about came at the time California was experiencing significant demographic change -- moving from a society that thought of itself (albeit incorrectly) mostly as white, middle class, to one in which whites became another minority.  Latinos, Asians, and African Americans now constitute a sizable majority of school enrollment and the use of public services.

     The revolt against government taxation that Proposition 13 set in motion in California resulted in the increased use of the initiative process. Initiatives-- once a bastion of “the people” and their power to influence public policy -- are now most often used by well organized political and economic entities on the left and the right, and by incumbent politicians from the government on down. It is those interest groups, backed by media consultants, direct mail specialists, pollsters and others, that usually finance the costly signature drives that costs millions of dollars to get measures on the ballot.  And, it is the advertising campaigns that drive the support for the initiative, or effectively block, through the influx of  millions of advertising dollars, the measures of its opponents (Schrag, 1998, p. 11).

It is interesting to note that the further the initiative process proceeds, the more problematic effective citizenship becomes.  Each initiative moves control further from the public and the legislature,  and closer to the special interests. This non-deliberative democracy, as found in the California style initiative process,  has no public hearings, no rules of procedure, no formal debates, and no informed voice. Non-deliberative democracy fails to present downside arguments, to outline implications, to control the cost, and to speak for minorities.  On the national scene, some twenty four states have some form of initiative or referendum in their constitutions. And, there is increasing pressure to use it as an agent of political reform. Non-deliberative democracy, based on the initiative process, is undermining the people’s  faith in our democratic processes.

     During the period of time since Proposition 13, initiatives have been passed that imposed specific spending formulas on schools, abolished affirmative action in public education, denied public schooling and public services to illegal immigrants, and eliminated bilingual education. California’s schools, which thirty years ago, had been among the best funded on the planet, are now in the bottom quartile among states in virtually every major indicator of educational progress and success.. California has an average class size of over 32, and in many cases, there are over 40 students  in classrooms designed for 25.   A vast majority of California’s  educational facilities are at least 30 years old, and many are over 40 years of age, and are in various and dangerous states of disrepair.  In California, we have chosen to spend less on education and more on prisons.  California is currently 41st out of 50 states in per capita educational spending. The fact is, that during the past twenty-five years, the best educational system in the world has been fundamentally and systematically dismantled.

     Lost in this plethora of initiatives, budget cuts and decline of funding,  is the fact that despite what politicians and the popular press would like us to believe, during the last decade standardized scores have been holding relatively steady,  with modest increases in both math and reading scores (Berliner and Biddle, 1998).  In an international comparison United States nine year olds were second only to Finland’s nine year olds, and United States’ fourteen year olds finished ninth, well above average, and a few points from the top (Bracy, 1992). This despite the fact that more students are taking the tests than ever before whose first language is not English.  Berliner and Biddle conclude that there is no support for the myth that American students fail in reading achievement, or any other subject.  Simply put, schools are in better shape than we are led to believe and teachers have done incredible work despite that fact that the educational system in California has been crumbling around them.

     Standards and High Stakes Testing: no rich kids left behind

As teachers have become convenient scapegoats for all that is wrong with education, “education reform” has turned  its attention to students and punished them by the introduction of plethora of  standards and high stakes testing proposals.  These standards and high stakes tests have used concepts such as ‘world class,’  ‘accountability,’  ‘competitive,’ and ‘standards”  that are taken directly from the  corporate world.  Kohn (2002) makes the argument that “anyone whose goal was to serve-up our schools to the market-place could hardly find a shrewder strategy than to hold schools ‘accountable’ through wave after wave of standardized tests” (p. 117).

  All too often,  these proposals result in a racist, one-size-fits-all approach to education that is designed to present a singular and simplistic view of knowledge, truth, and learning that ignores the diverse needs of our children of color and those who live in poverty.  These so called “reform” efforts  are intended to blame teachers and punish students for the problems of education by mandating a focus on drill and practice, and “teaching to the test,” instead of fostering students’ critical thinking skills. As a result of these efforts to blame teachers and punish students, we are relinquishing  control of the classroom and curriculum solely to those who construct the tests. 

Martha Rapp Ruddell (2001) quotes Elliot Eisner who reminds us that standards in education are not new; “they are in fact a ‘recapitulation’ of behavioral objectives that so preoccupied us in the 1960’s, and actually grew from the ‘efficiency’ movement in education of 1913-1930 that was based on an industrial model of high productivity.”  Ruddell goes on to further quote Eisner:

“Uniformity in curriculum content is a virtue if one’s aim is to be able to compare students in one part of the country with students in others. Uniformity is a virtue when the aspiration is to compare the performance of American students with students in Korea, Japan, and Germany. But why should we wish to make such comparisons?” (p.11)

     Susan Ohanian (in Ruddell, 2001)  notes that framers of standards regularly ignore the developmental reality of adolescence. She says:

“Now you and I know that anyone who says high schoolers should read Moby Dick 1) doesn’t know any fifteen year olds; 2) has never read Moby Dick or 3) has read Moby Dick , has a fifteen year old in the house, and wants to get even” (p. 12)

     Perhaps the most astounding thing about standards and high stakes tests is the there is no research evidence  whatsoever that their use enhances student achievement and learning (Black and Wilam, 1998).  Still, tests have become so all consuming that more than 20 million schools days were devoted to them in one year. The case for high stakes testing and standards is based on simplistic solutions designed to raise the self esteem of politicians, businesspersons, and policy makers. High stakes tests, coupled with standards,  sustains and maintains a classist and corporate system of education where a small and select number of schools receive an embarrassment of riches.

     Our fixation on standards and high stakes testing was demonstrated when, the day after the tragic killings in Littleton, Colorado, high schools continued their scheduled standardized tests rather than postpone them and discuss the incomprehensible events that shocked students and  adults throughout the country and world. One is left to wonder how high the scores were on that day of testing?  Will teachers be blamed, yet again, for these “low” scores?

Things are bound to only get worse with standards and high stakes testing. Schools will lose funding or may even be closed if their test scores don’t improve.  The test scores of schools will be compared with others regarding how well they do on the tests. Teachers in “low performing” schools may be subjected to disciplinary pressures, and even firing,  if their students don’t score well on one test.  And, “low performing”  schools  may be taken over by the state and/or assigned to for-profit corporate entities.

Standards and high stakes testing determine the form of most teaching,  since for any given exam, there is a best way to prepare for it. Repetition, forced memorization, rote learning and frequent quizzes leave precious little time for more creative approaches where students convey, exchange and question facts and ideas. Course content is determined by the exam,  leaving little time for any materials not on the exam,  such as student reactions, reflection on main issues of the day, alternative points of view, or anything else that is likely to promote creative, cooperative or critical thinking .

High stakes tests have proven to be very reliable predictors of factors  related to socio-economic class, and poverty.  Standardized testing is a strong indicator of where the wealthiest schools are,  and where children  of poverty go to school. Students of color, second language learners,  and children in poverty consistently score lower on all standardized tests. High stakes tests are strong indicators that children of poverty get an education that does not compare to that received by wealthier, white students.  What these tests seemingly predict and ensure - with their enormously high price tags -  is that no rich kids will be left behind.  The National Commission on Testing and Public Policy (1990)  says that as early as 1990 standardized testing in America consumed more than $900 million in one year. A decade later, the price tag is much, much higher.

Alfie Kohn (2002) argues that standardized testing promotes the presence of corporations, and a corporate ethos, in public schools. Kohn states that testing  promotes a corporate mentality that does testing four things very effectively: 1) testing  brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to the handful of corporations that produce the tests; 2)  testing serves  as a sorter and screener of  students for the convenience of industry;  3)  testing fosters a corporate ideology where assessment is used to compare and evaluate people in uniform ways; 4) testing is used to shock the public into a need to “improve” education through vouchers, and for-profit schools (p.116).  Corporate influence and the quest for profits that is encouraged and supported by testing 

What testing reveals - more than any other factor -  is the absolute certainty is that testing does not serve the needs of all students in a democratic society, and the democratic goal to help all students become enthusiastic learners.

A Nation at Risk?

 One can pinpoint in time when the clarion call for accountability began.  In 1983,  the Regan administration, amid much fanfare, released the incendiary report on the state of American education entitled A Nation At Risk , prepared by a prestigious committee under the direction of then Secretary of Education Terrell Bell. A Nation At Risk made sweeping claims attacking the conduct and achievement of America’s public schools and documented these claims  by “evidence.”  

 The “evidence”  provided in A Nation At Risk  made the case that the failures of the public schools were damaging the nation, and if not addressed, stood to weaken our democratic future. Though some of the claims had validity and were made to genuinely improve public education, a disproportionate number of these claims can be construed as blatant attacks that were contradicted by sound research-based evidence, and were outright hostile or untrue. As more and more of the attacks denouncing public education made the front pages of the news media and the six o’clock news, business persons and governmental leaders were endlessly repeating the attacks, and giving life to these distortions and falsehoods. Ironically, many prominent members of the educational establishment often supported the attacks that were endlessly reported by an unquestioning press ( Berliner and Biddle, 1997).  David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle (1997) in their examination of the rise of the standards and accountability movement argue that:

“ is small wonder that many Americans have come to believe  that education in our country is now in a deplorable state. Indeed, how could they have concluded anything else, given such an energetic and widely reported campaign of criticism, from such prestigious resources, attacking America’s public schools? To the best of our knowledge, no campaign of this sort has ever before appeared in American history. Never before had an American government been so critical of the public schools, and never had so many false claims been made about education in the name of ‘evidence.’ We shall refer to this campaign of criticism as the Manufactured Crisis.” (pg. 4)

The most recent results of the 34th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools (Phi Delta Kappan, 2002) support Berliner and Biddle’s assertion that there is a disconnect between the public’s attitudes toward education and the critics unfounded attacks on education. The poll reported that national public support for and reliance on public schools is strong and increases as people have more contact with schools. This trend for public support of schools has been steadily rising since 1992.

Regarding testing, the public attitude toward testing remains remarkably stable over time. Even when the call for testing is increasing, 47% of those polled indicated that the amount of testing is about right, down from forty eight percent in 1997. Thirty one per cent think there is too much testing up from 27% in 1997. When asked which is the best way to measure student achievement - by means of test scores or by classroom  work and homework - fifty three percent support classroom work and homework over test scores, while only 23% think test scores is the best way to measure student achievement. When asked how they would grade schools in their own community 47% give schools an “A” or “B.”   Interestingly, 24% think the schools in the nation deserve an “A” or “B”, while when asked to grade the school their oldest child attends, a stunning 71% give that school either an “A” or “B.”  Finally, 69% of those polled support reforming the existing system while only 27% think we should find an alternative to a “failing” system of schooling.

Seldom do we see these results that support the work of schools reported in the media. What seems to be the case is that the public is not inclined to believe negative and unfounded media reports when it comes to schools they know and trust to educate their children - even when deluged with negative attacks daily in the media. In spite of a continued negative avalanche of unsupported attacks on public schools, the public remains, as it has for the past decade, unconvinced that schools are as terrible its conservative critics suggest.

The California Teacher Performance Assessment

In the wake of the testing mania that swept through  P-12 education like a firestorm, the hegemony of accountability and standardization of the curriculum has finally arrived at the door step of teacher education and it is embodies as the California Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA).  Senate Bill -2042, signed into law  by governor in 1998, requires all preliminary credential candidates to pass a high stakes teaching performance assessment, the TPA. The law provides that professional teacher preparation programs may use the TPA or they may develop their own assessment.  

Prototypes of the TPA were developed and piloted to measure thirteen Teacher Performance Expectations, TPE.  The TPEs purportedly describe and measure on a singular exam  “what California teachers need to know  and be able to do” before receiving a preliminary credential. There are four performance tasks that collectively measure the TPEs in the following areas: (adapted from the California Department of Education Pilot Draft of the TPA)

Task I:  Principles of Content-Specific and Developmentally Appropriate Pedagogy-  students are asked to demonstrate knowledge of principles of developmentally appropriate pedagogy and current specific pedagogy from four specific prompts

Task II:  Connecting Student Characteristics to Instructional Planning- students demonstrate their ability to learn important details about a small group of learners and to plan instruction that is shaped by those student characteristics.

Task III:  Classroom Assessment of Academic Learning Goals - students demonstrate their ability to use standards-based, developmentally appropriate student assessment activities with a group pf students. Students will demonstrate their ability to assess student learning and diagnose student needs based on their responses to the assessment activity

Task IV:  Academic Lesson Design, Implementation and Reflection after Instruction -  students demonstrate their ability to design a standards-based lesson, via a 30 minute video tape, for a particular group of students, implementing that lesson making appropriate use of class time and instructional resources, meet differing needs of individuals within the class, manage instruction and student interaction, assess student learning, and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson

Currently, many “early adopter” credential programs are engaged in piloting the TPA and its four tasks. These “early adopters” have been given the task of trying to determine how best to administer and  field test the TPA.   To date, little information is known regarding the success of the state’s pilot program. However, a closer examination of the TPA raises some interesting issues, questions and concerns.

The TPA:  a  time worn, top down ideology

     At first glance, the TPA  is a somewhat innocuous measure of teaching effectiveness. It is based upon Teacher Performance Standards (TPE)  standards that,  for the most part, remain unquestioned by most teacher educators. The four tasks that comprise the TPA assessment are based upon ideas in performance-based assessment that has been used widely by teacher educators across the country. Many educators  believe the concept of examination to determine teacher readiness is not a bad idea. Witness efforts by the University of California and Stanford Universities to develop their own high stakes examinations as substitutes for the state developed and administered examination. These efforts remain unquestioned by even the most radical opponents of curricular standardization and the TPA.

Many teacher educators object to the top-down nature of the TPA process. Not only does it ignore the professional commitment professors have toward building effective teacher education programs, the TPA also moves the State of California’s  historical responsibility for teacher education  from accrediting teacher education programs, to externally controlling and effectively mandating what should be taught and how it should be delivered in Universities.

This change of course is viewed as political, and driven by a genuine mistrust of teacher educators  - led by policy makers and large corporations (Kohn, 2002).  M ore importantly, this top-down regulation undermines the ability of teacher educators to prepare highly qualified and effective teachers.

Bertell Ollman (2002) in “Why So Many Exams?” details eight myths that surround exams and testing in our society. Among these,  is the largely unquestioned belief that exams are unbiased and that it is possible to produce an exam that is “culture free.” It is this largely unchallenged assertion that drives the examination mania that grips our culture. The fact remains that there is no singular high stakes examination that has been proven to be totally unbiased. 

More importantly, this myth of unbiased testing supports the assumption that a complex set of concepts and behaviors embedded in a year-long teacher education curriculum can, and should  be measured in a singular examination.

Teaching is an ever-changing enterprise. It has been estimated that a teacher, in the course of a single day,  makes thousands of decisions that impact the quality of education for their students and ultimately how well they perform the complex tasks of teaching.

In teaching, the ambiguity of not knowing what can and will happen from moment to moment is as frightening and as it is challenging. To consider that the task of teaching should  and can be measured by a singular high stakes examination reduces the complex act of teaching to a fragmented, de-contextualized set of unrelated exercises that have no real meaning. The fundamental assumption and largely unquestioned belief is that teaching can be simplistically measured  by a single examination.

Rather than testing prospective teachers, we need to  be working with our future teachers to expand the idea of assessment  to provide multiple, yet rigorous, ways for students to demonstrate what they know.  We cannot expect prospective teachers in the 21st century to adopt new means of assessment in their curriculum and for their students, if their future careers are based upon a hackneyed, high stakes, testing ideology rooted in  19th century  beliefs about testing.  Among these beliefs is the time worn notion that students learn best when performing short, segmented tasks - stressing speed and neatness  - to the ticking of a clock.  This ideology is embedded in the work culture of late 19th century America where students were being prepared to work in factories. Most would agree that the world of the 21st century teacher  has changed inestimably since the late 19th century. .

Political Ramifications, Economic Costs

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the TPA is the fact that its existence  increases the likelihood that the scores it generates will be used to compare - for political purposes -  students, institutions and ultimately professors. The TPA will serve as a bellwether, as has been d one with most standardized tests, to the public as to the institutions that are” best” doing their job of educating teachers. The scores of students will most likely be reported to the public with lower performing schools with rewards and punishments being distributed accordingly. In response to this kind of application of standardized test scores, Nancy Kober (2002) reported that high stakes test scores do not seem to generalize to any other index of achievement other than its own. In fact,  Berliner and Amrein (2002) discovered that in states where high stakes testing scores were on the rise, math scores on the NAEP, ACT and SAT fell.  Higher education may wish to enter this highly questionable area of test score interpretation and application with some degree of trepidation.

There is also some discussion that individual TPA scores would be released to schools who are hiring new teachers for the purpose of screening sand evaluation. With the meaning of these test scores under question, such a development could possibly prevent hundreds of potential teachers from becoming employed based upon a singular score on the TPA

In a era of declining educational budgets, the economic costs of the TPA have yet to be resolved. However, the main accrediting body of teacher education, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) has entered into a $3.7 million contract with the Educational Testing Service to develop a prototype TPA examination (see Appendix 1-IV).  No exact figures have been agreed upon regarding the direct costs of the TPA will have for School of Education, but it is clear that issues such as administering the test  and  “training” teachers to score the TPA exams will place additional burdens on already overwhelmed and under-supported schools of education. One educator stated that archiving the 30 minute video tapes (each tape must be kept for 5 years) and supporting documents that are required of the TPA’s four tasks will require that the California State University to “buy a barge and park it  in the San Francisco Bay for the purpose of storing the tapes and documents that the TPA will generate.”

Ultimately, some believe that the TPA may actually be part of a maneuver to discredit and weaken schools of education, and open the door to the idea that teacher education be disseminated by districts and private corporations, leaving schools of education out of the process.

High Stakes in High Stakes Exams

The TPA is the first volley for standardizing the curriculum of higher education. The TPA is a high-stakes process that holds severe consequences for students, professors and the university. Its ultimate success will determine how much teacher education and the university will succumb to even more demands of the standardization movement.                   

Teacher educators, not state bureaucrats or professional test makers, are best equipped to develop demanding and yet inclusive proficiency exit standards that combine student portfolios, and performance based projects - not just one high stakes  standardized test - to credential teachers.

 If we are move to a new age of assessment that rejects 19th century idea ideas and practices, multiple assessments need to determine the success of a program, provide information to students regarding their achievement, and hold schools responsible  for how well taxpayers’ money is being spent to prepare high quality and effective teachers. It is time to demand that our nation, and our state and its schools stop relying on a single, corporate influenced, standardized, measure of student achievement and adopt a variety of student assessments that:

1) are designed to provide feedback that improves student learning;

2) involve students, parents, teachers and the community collaborating for improved student learning and better schools; 

3) allow a variety of measures that focus on individual student learning;

4) do not limit the curriculum to a singular, standardized, assessment based on a high stakes approach.

University and teacher educators need to be reminded of the truly high stakes involved in the high stakes examination called the TPA.  The control of the curriculum and its assessment by teacher educators is at risk. A closer look  by all interested in teacher education is  warranted.



Berliner, D. and Biddle, B. (1997). The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Frauds and the Attack on America’s Public Schools.  Longman, USA.

Bracy, G.W. (1992) International Comparisons and the Condition of American Education, Educational Researcher,  25(1), 5-11

Bracy, G.W. (2002) “The 12th Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education,

Phi Delta Kappan, Bloomington Indiana, October.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, Bloomington Indiana, October.

Kober, N. (2002) “Teaching to the Test”, TestTalk for Leaders, Center on Educational Policy, Washington, D.C. June.

Kohn, A. (2002)  “The Gorilla in the Classroom,” Phi Delta Kappan, Bloomington Indiana, October.    

Phi Delta Kappan (2002) “34th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools”, Phi Delta Kappan, Bloomington Indiana, September.

National Commission on Testing and Public Policy (1990). From gatekeeper to gateway: Transforming testing in America.  Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

Olman, B. (2002) “Why So Many Exams, a Marxist response: Z Magazine, October 2002)

Ruddell, M.R. (2001). Teaching Content Reading and Writing,  (3rd ed.) New York: John  Wiley and Sons.

Schrag, P. (1998) Paradise Lost:  California’s Experience, America’s Future The New Press: New York.


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