Newstrack: Funding for new assessment still up in the air

Buck: Without state aid, Smarter Balanced should be paused

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Background

CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa schools’ current math and reading tests have been on their way out since November, when members of the State Board of Education voted to adopt a new state assessment starting in the 2016-17 school year.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments were chosen to replace the Iowa Assessments, math and reading tests typically taken by students in third through eighth and 11th grades to fulfill state and federal accountability requirements.

The decision to boot Iowa Assessments, developed by the Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa, came after a state task force recommendation in December 2014. According to an Iowa Department of Education news release, members of the task force said Smarter Balanced’s tests would more accurately measure student progress.

The new, “computer adaptive” assessments also will be a shift away from more rigid bubble tests. The Smarter Balanced test adjusts itself based on individual student ability — if students do well, questions become more difficult. If they struggle, questions are easier.

Districts generally supported the shift, saying the assessment better aligns with Iowa Core standards.

But Smarter Balanced isn’t cheap. The task force estimated the assessments, which do not include science testing, will cost $22.50 per student. Other estimates set the price point even higher.

When the test was adopted it was unclear if the state, federal aid or individual school districts would shoulder that financial burden.

What's Happened Since

While the legislature agreed on a 2.25 percent — about $153.8 million — increase in state aid earlier this month, funds for the assessment have still not been identified.

That level of funding will lead to cuts for some districts, including Cedar Rapids Community School District. Superintendent Brad Buck said the estimated $265,000 price tag for Smarter Balanced for his district would add to the already planned $2.3 million in reductions.

“Smarter Balanced is the right test for Iowa,” Buck said. “But it either needs to be funded or paused.”

Assessments that are used to fulfill state and federal accountability requirements have historically been paid for with a mix of state and federal dollars, Iowa Department of Education Communications Director Staci Hupp said.

“It’s been our understanding that if the legislature applies additional funds, districts won’t have to pay,” she said. “But if they don’t, then districts would be required to pay.”

As of yet, the legislature hasn’t assigned any additional funds to cover the assessment.

Moving forward, two scenarios could play out, said Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the Urban Education Network of Iowa. The legislature could still scrape up the funds, about $10 million — but she’s not optimistic.

“There was no money in the governor’s budget recommendation, and we’re hearing from both the House and Senate that there won’t be appropriations,” Buckton said.

If legislators don’t take action, Smarter Balanced will become the required assessment across the state — an unfunded mandate — with costs falling on districts, Buckton and Buck both said.

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