Practices of Teaching Content: An Innovative Approach to Assessment

Practices of Teaching Content: An Innovative Approach to Assessment

This article was originally published in Education Dive.

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What if teacher licensure were more like passing a driver’s test?

Many of us recall the anticipation and excitement of taking and passing a driver’s test to get our license. Not only did you have to pass a written test about driving laws and regulations, but you also had to successfully complete a performance test showing your driving skills as an examiner watched and evaluated your performance. What if we were to do the same for teaching? What if we assessed both what teachers know and what they are able to do, before they enter the classroom? 

In some states, this approach is being tried in portfolio assessments. In the portfolio approach, teachers gather evidence of knowledge and skills that are specified by the assessment designers.  For example, a teacher might record herself teaching a mathematics lesson to fourth graders in her student teaching placement, and use that lesson to demonstrate her ability to use questioning and formative assessment strategies effectively. 

This type of portfolio approach has been used in both teacher and student assessment (e.g., Koretz, Stecher, Klein, & McCaffrey, 1995; Naizer, 1997; Wilson, Darling-Hammond, & Berry, 2001). One aspect of portfolios sometimes raises concerns about standardization and fairness. Candidates select which performances they submit, which can lead to one type of unevenness. Candidates can also teach in very different environments. For example, if a candidate has an “easy” student teaching placement and another candidate has a “harder” one, this could make the assessment “unfair,” if it increases the level of difficulty for the second candidate to pass the assessment.

A new approach to assessing beginning teachers

These issues of standardization and fairness were part of what motivated Educational Testing Service and TeachingWorks to create a new approach for assessing beginning teachers’ capabilities, before they enter the classroom. This new approach to teacher licensure, known as the ETS® National Observational Teaching Examination (NOTE), features on-demand standardized performance assessments administered in secure testing centers. NOTE assesses candidates’ ability to engage in three practices of teaching content: (1) modeling and explaining content (MEC), (2) leading a group discussion (LGD), and (3) eliciting and interpreting student thinking (EST). These are high-leverage teaching practices that elementary school teachers engage in frequently, and are documented to be important to student learning (High-leverage practices, n.d.; Qi & Sykes, 2016; Stickler & Sykes, 2016; Sykes & Wilson, 2015; Witherspoon, Sykes, & Bell, 2016). 

In each task, candidates are presented with a scenario of a teaching situation and asked to perform one of these three practices as they address a predetermined instructional goal. Candidates have the opportunity to first plan and then engage in a short, simulated performance.

For the MEC tasks, candidates model and explain a key concept, idea or strategy related to either English language arts or mathematics. For example, candidates may be asked to model and explain how to use base ten blocks to solve subtraction problems with regrouping. They are judged on how well they frame, demonstrate, narrate and annotate, use language and representations, and represent the subject matter during this simulated performance. The EST and LGD tasks use simulated classroom environments with simulated students, known as avatars, to see how candidates perform in actual teaching situations. The student avatars are voiced and acted by trained and certified human simulation specialists who can see, hear and interact with the candidates in real time.

For the EST tasks, candidates are given a piece of written student work and asked to elicit student thinking in regards to the work sample. For example, candidates may be asked to identify the key challenge a student is experiencing when reading a text. For the LGD tasks, candidates are provided a description of the first part of a lesson and then asked to engage the student avatars in a discussion focused on a specific instructional goal related to that lesson. Discussion tasks are judged on how well candidates elicit and probe student thinking, use and coordinate students’ ideas, represent the subject matter and conclude the discussion. 

Together, the evidence that comes from these three teaching practices allows for making a licensure decision based on candidates’ abilities to carry out important teaching practices. It also ensures candidates face similar, standardized tasks, giving all candidates an equal opportunity to demonstrate their skills. In other words, this new assessment approach gets closer to a “road test” for teachers. Both our teachers and students deserve our very best, and this type of assessment holds promise in ensuring that teachers are prepared from the first moment they step foot in the classroom.

To learn more about NOTE, visit



About edTPA. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2016, from

High-leverage practices. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2016, from

Koretz, D., Stecher, B. M., Klein, S. P., & McCaffrey, D. F. (1995). The Vermont Portfolio Assessment Program: Findings and Implications, RP-366. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Naizer, G. L. (1997). Validity and Reliability Issues of Performance-Portfolio Assessment. Action in Teacher Education, 18(4), 1-9. doi: 10.1080/01626620.1997.10463359

Qi, Y., & Sykes, G. (2016). Eliciting Student Thinking (EST): Definition, Research Support, and Measurement of the ETS National Observational Teaching Examination (NOTE) Assessment Series. Princeton NJ: Educational Testing Service. Research Report. ETS RM-16-06

Stickler, L., & Sykes, G. (2016). Modeling and Explaining Content (MEC): Definition, Research Support, and Measurement of the ETS National Observational Teaching Examination (NOTE) Assessment Series. Princeton NJ: Educational Testing Service. Research Report. ETS RM-16-07

Sykes, G., & Wilson, S. (2015). How Teachers Teach: Mapping the Terrain of Practice. Princeton NJ: Educational Testing Service. White Paper. 

Wilson, S. M., Darling-Hammond, L., & Berry, B. (2001). A Case of Successful Teaching Policy: Connecticut's Long-Term Efforts To Improve Teaching and Learning. A Research Report. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, Seattle, WA.

Witherspoon, M., Sykes, G., & Bell, C. (2016). Leading a Classroom Discussion (LCD): Definition, Research Support, and Measurement of the ETS National Observational Teaching Examination (NOTE) Assessment Series. Princeton NJ: Educational Testing Service. Research Report. ETS RM-16-09

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