Iowa's education chief put to the test

Jason Glass took the ACT on Monday after a Twitter war about the value of standardized tests

Jason Glass
Jason Glass

DES MOINES — Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass’s pretest ritual, leading up to taking the ACT on Monday, consisted of a weekend of online study followed by a test-day microwave breakfast sandwich and “lots” of coffee.

For his efforts, Glass scored a 27 out of a possible 36, putting him in the 88th percentile of all test-takers. It’s a score that would get him a second look by all but the most selective colleges and universities, before criteria such as extracurricular activities were applied.

Then there’s University of Kentucky associate education professor Scott McLeod. He took the test with Glass and a group of students at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

McLeod earned a 34, placing him in the 99th percentile of all test-takers. College-bound juniors with that type of score can have even their “safety school” picks among the top five in the country.

Iowa’s average statewide composite score for students in the Class of 2011 was 22.3, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The national average was 21.1. Only 61 percent of the students who can take the test in Iowa do so.

It was McLeod who challenged Glass to take the test, back in February. The two were posting back and forth on Twitter about the value of standardized tests such as the ACT.

Glass has pushed for a mandatory ACT test for all juniors in the state as part of the state’s education reform package. McLeod wasn’t sold on the idea, so he offered his suggestion — along the lines of “if it’s so good, why don’t YOU take it?”

For just shy of four hours Monday, the two picked up their No. 2 pencils, opened their test booklets — a retired copy of the exam administered by two officials from the testing company — and had at it.

By the time it was over, they agreed that the math section was tough, but the science section was really tough. Both said they were unnerved by the time limits, but they found it a worthwhile exercise.

Not that it changed their positions much.

“I’m looking for something more, still, than what I just took,” McLeod said. “I’m looking for something where students can apply more of what they learn, something more performance-based.”

Glass called the test “rigorous” and “challenging.” He believes that making the ACT, or a similar college exam, mandatory for Iowa 11th-graders “sets the goal right” in the classroom.

“Our expectation is to say that our goal for every kid (is to) achieve at this college and career-ready level,” he said. “That’s the right expectation and having that assessment in place helps create that.”

So far, lawmakers have been decidedly lukewarm to the proposal. The education reform proposals moved by the Republican-controlled House required that students take either a college entrance exam or a career readiness exam. The Senate version of the education reform package made no requirement for either a college or career exam in the 11th grade.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked during a news conference Monday whether other members of the executive branch or the Legislature would take the exam.

“I think probably it would be an OK thing for us to do,” she answered. “I wasn’t aware (Glass) was doing that, so good for him. I think it’s a good indicator so we can see what we’re asking students to do ... It’s been a while, but I wouldn’t shy away from a challenge. Do I have to release the score?”

ACT officials released the scores for Glass and McLeod under a special agreement with the two.“Knowing the experiences we’re putting our students through is important, it’s valuable,” Glass said. “From our positions at the state level and the university level, we can get these ivory tower effects and not really know what it’s like to be in the classroom. So that experience is very valuable.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.