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Learning curve: Officials wanted a new exam, and maybe they'll finally get it

In a state known as one of the nation's hubs for standardized test development, a convoluted test replacement process dragged on

Jun 17, 2019 at 3:06 pm
    Iowa Ideas cover story inside art illustration. Photographed in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

    For three days in March, science teacher Amy Jabens began her mornings in Prairie High School’s guidance office, where copies of the Iowa Assessments were kept under lock and key.

    There, she collected a stack of the state-mandated exams to haul back to her classroom. She handed out the 100-page booklets to students, along with sheets for them to “bubble” in their answers to questions about reading, math and science concepts.

    During the school districtwide testing period, students were urged to get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast and be in class each day.

    Teachers’ comments before the hour-and-20-minute testing period were scripted, so every student heard directions on how to shade in answers, ask for scratch paper or fix a mistake.

    “In every room, it will be the exact same paragraph,” said Jabens, who works in the College Community School District in Cedar Rapids.

    Five years after the search for a new test began, 360,000 students still take tests believed by officials to produce poor reflections of Iowa classrooms.



    At the close of the day’s testing, teachers collected the booklets and walked them back to the guidance office, where they were locked up until the next day’s test.

    The next morning, teachers and students did it all again.

    Jabens picked up the tests. She passed them out to students. She read her script. Students worked. She collected the tests. Staff locked them away. Repeat.

    It’s a strict regimen meant to keep the testing period sacred, Jabens noted, and it plays out every year in schools across the state. All Iowa schools are required to administer the Iowa Assessments to students to fulfill state and federal accountability requirements.

    But since 2013, state officials have said the test is no longer an adequate measure of students and have tried to replace the Iowa Assessments with a new state exam.

    House File 215, which legislators passed and Gov. Terry Branstad signed in 2013, laid out a multipronged approach to education reform — including a measure to find and implement a test “aligned to the Iowa common core standards and is, at a minimum, valid, reliable, tested and piloted in Iowa.”

    The Iowa Assessments were developed at the University of Iowa, just 20 miles south of Prairie High School. The Pearson NCS facility, where all of the state’s tests are scored, is a mere mile away.

    But most players in the conversation about a new state exam — state legislators, educators in Iowa schools, Iowa Department of Education committees, officials from the U.S. Department of Education and the Iowa Assessments’ developers themselves — agree the current Iowa Assessments are not aligned to the Iowa Core, the state’s set of academic standards adopted in 2010.

    Those standards lay out what the state expects students to learn in grades kindergarten through high school in math, science, English language arts and social studies, as well as sets learning objectives for financial and technological literacy.

    Without alignment to the Core, the tests have not measured what students are learning in Iowa classrooms. Yet, five years after the search for a new test began, 360,000 students still take tests believed by those officials to produce poor reflections of Iowa classrooms.


    While students continued to take those exams, legislators and state officials have spent years debating whether to adopt an exam developed out-of-state. In late March, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation keeping the state’s testing contract at the University of Iowa, where test developers have promised a test aligned to the Core.

    Any further delay could have put federal funding for schools at risk.

    “We’re under an incredible amount of pressure as a state to be in compliance,” said Jay Pennington, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education, at a hearing in November. “You know, the ultimate outcome of not being in compliance is our Title I funding, which is roughly $100 million for the state of Iowa. So if we don’t show progress, at some point we put that $100 million at risk as a state.”

    For decades, students in Iowa have taken tests, such as the Iowa Assessments, that were developed by Iowa Testing Programs, which is part of the University of Iowa’s College of Education.

    By leaving its testing contract with Iowa Testing Programs, the state is continuing a long tradition of Iowa administering state exams developed by an in-house vendor that sells its exams to schools around the globe.

    Iowa Testing Programs has been creating tests since the 1920s. Since its conception, it has been a hub for standardized assessment development.

    E.F. Lindquist founded the program, where he developed the ACT college admissions test, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills for K-12 students and pioneered Optical Mark Read Scanning — the technology that equipped machines with the ability to read and score bubble test sheets.

    “What he did was really take us into the field of where large scale testing has been the last 50 years,” Iowa Testing Programs Co-Director Catherine Welch said. “Of scanning and scoring and reporting in a very effective and highly reliable manner.”

    The invention of the optical scanner was, in many ways, the beginning of digital learning, her Co-Director Stephen Dunbar added.

    “You could say the optical scanner was the precursor of the internet,” he said. “Now, what we’re able to do is collect that same information as students respond immediately in an online testing environment.”

    That technology spurred the creation of a scoring company that still has offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, though it has since been purchased by NCS Pearson, which has its headquarters in London. The facilities in Iowa have worked with Iowa Testing Programs to administer its tests since the 1950s.

    “Even though we have different owners, we’re essentially the same company we always have been,” said Lisa Lepic, NCS Pearson’s senior vice president for business development, who lives and works in Iowa City. “When I say ‘same company,’ what I mean is we believe in good customer service, we have really good relationships with our customers — we’re like that Iowa company, still.”

    While its home state has sought out other test developers, Iowa Testing Programs’ assessments have continued to be given to some five million students across the country.

    Despite the state’s search elsewhere, Dunbar said Iowa Testing Programs has been steadfast in its commitment to students and schools, including those in Iowa.

    “All these years of the state looking at other alternatives, the position of the Iowa Testing Programs is: We are here to serve the schools and the Iowa Department of Education,” Dunbar said. “And we have not wavered from that commitment.”

    Meanwhile, the Iowa Department of Education and legislators have for five years weighed replacing the Iowa Assessments with the Smarter Balanced tests as well as assessments developed by the American Institutes of Research in Washington, D.C.



    Financial and political setbacks stalled the adoption of a new state exam, but back in 2013, Iowa seemed primed to implement education measures that then-Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck thought would be some of the state’s most important work.

    Buck’s assumption of the top role at the state Department of Education that same year came months after education reform legislation called for a strong Iowa Core, an aligned assessment and the beginning of the Teacher Leadership and Compensation system.

    “Getting really clear on what we want kids to know and do, getting a high-quality measure to be sure we’re monitoring progress on that, and a whole system designed to even better support our teachers,” Buck recalled. “Honestly, I have goose bumps now even talking about it.”

    Buck left his role at the state after two years to work as superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District. Looking back one afternoon in mid-March, he said it’s disappointing to see the assessment update stagnate.

    “We’re still, at least in this moment in time, without the linchpin of accountability and support, related to the assessment piece,” Buck said. “I struggle to see that we’re in the same spot that we were in a few years ago when I took on that role. Compared to the path that I observed us to be on, to where we are — it’s surprising to me.”

    Weeks later, Gov. Reynolds signed legislation planting the state’s testing contract back at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Testing Programs.

    The law rendered moot the saga that has unfolded as the state has sought an updated test. In describing that twisting history in November 2017, Becky Durand, a a member of the committee that evaluated test proposals, was frank.

    “Politics entered into it,” she said during a hearing in Des Moines presided over by an administrative law judge, where test vendors, legislators and Iowa Department of Education officials rehashed the narrative details.

    “I’m just saying the cheapest option to me is not what is important...What evaluates the Iowa Core and our students’ learning, the Iowa Core is what’s important to me.”

    - Becky Durand, committee member who evaluated proposals



    Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said legislators, since the beginning, had been fairly united about the importance of adopting a new test.

    “We kind of had the cart before the horse, and so the determination was made to form a task force to determine quality assessments that would do the reverse, that would align themselves to what we were teaching,” Sinclair said, according to administrative law court documents.

    The group included a cross-section of Iowans and met for more than a year before recommending Smarter Balanced assessments — adaptive, computer-based exams created by a consortium of states, including Iowa.

    “The task force did their job. They recommended an assessment,” Durand recalled. “Schools were gearing up to implement that assessment. In fact, I believe it was supposed to be implemented this year. And then the legislators put the brakes on and said, ‘Oops, now we have to do an RFP (request for proposals) process.’ ”

    The cost of the Smarter Balanced tests was considered prohibitive, with an estimate of more than $22 per student — not including required science assessments in grades 5, 8 and 10. The cost of the Iowa Assessments students still take is about $4.50 per student.

    Early in the 2016 session, lawmakers soured at the costly recommendation and began crafting legislation, Senate File 240, that would bypass the Smarter Balanced recommendation.

    “A lot of work had gone into the task force,” testified Pennington of the Iowa Department of Education. “That task force was 21, I believe, members, you know — sort of assessment experts across the state representing different stakeholders. ... So I was disappointed in that a lot of work had gone into the decision, and more work going toward training and all that, sort of had to be put on hold while the issue got revisited.”

    In the hearing, Smarter Balanced was at times cast as an elitist test option.

    “We do not need to get into the weeds really of what Smarter Balanced is as opposed to other kinds of assessments, at least for the purposes of opening statements, and maybe never,” Mark Weinhardt, a lawyer for NCS Pearson, said at the administrative hearing. “Suffice it to say that Smarter Balanced has two features about it relevant to this litigation: One, it’s really expensive, and, two, it’s perceived by the educational establishment as fancy. They like it.”

    The state’s latest request drew proposals from several testing vendors, including NCS Pearson, which positioned itself as the vendor for a new version of the Iowa Assessments. Washington, D.C.-based American Institutes of Research also submitted proposals. A new committee overseen by the Iowa Department of Education scored those bids.


    “It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that under the non-cost, non-price evaluation factors, this was by no means a close competition between” the American Institutes of Research proposal and Pearson’s proposal, said Michael McGill, a representative of American Institutes of Research.

    The D.C.-developed test outscored Iowa’s by 101 points of 700.

    “A lot of the strengths of that proposal were really based on the Pearson team,” Pennington said. “Where it kind of fell apart, or wasn’t as good, was really focused on the technical components. So things like alignment, things like the ability to be in compliance with ESSA,” the federal Every Student Succeeds Act legislation.

    One of the last steps of the process involved factoring in the costs of the test, which was given additional scoring weight. With costs accounted for, NCS Pearson’s Iowa Assessments rose to the top. The new version of the Iowa Assessments was estimated to cost about $12 per student, while the American Institutes of Research test would cost a little more than $17 per student.

    Considering the state’s budget this year, the additional costs of any test likely will fall to school districts.

    “I think that there is zero likelihood that there would be a special categorical appropriation to cover the cost of assessments,” Sen. Sinclair testified in November.

    For many Iowa school districts, cuts almost assuredly would need to be made to make room in the budget for mandatory testing materials.

    Still, some argued the more expensive tests were worth the cost.

    “I’m just saying the cheapest option to me is not what is important,” Durand said. “What evaluates the Iowa Core and our students’ learning, the Iowa Core is what’s important to me.”

    After opening the cost proposals, department officials said they noticed NCS Pearson incorrectly had priced its test by omitting costs associated with translating the assessments to Spanish. After adjusting the prices, the American Institutes of Research proposal beat NCS Pearson’s — by 11 points of 1,000 possible.

    NCS Pearson then challenged the award of contract to American Institutes of Research, and all parties met in an administrative law courtroom in Des Moines in November 2017. In February of this year, a judge issued a recommendation siding with the state’s process that gave the state’s test contract to the out-of-state vendor.

    But by then, legislators were frustrated at the lengthy process and were on their way to passing a law that would have the contract stay at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Testing Programs.

    “Let’s just pick one and move forward,” Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said in February.

    House File 2235 wiped away the last half-decade’s recommendations and bid processes — none of which saw an Iowa test succeed — in favor of keeping the test in-state.



    Despite the state’s reviews, representatives from NCS Pearson as well as Iowa Testing Programs maintain their new test would align with the Core and meet legal requirements.

    “Obviously, the first thing you want to do is make sure you’re doing the best thing for your students,” said NCS Pearson’s Lepic. “But if you have two great things, then what’s the next thing to look at? Cost.”

    Iowa Testing Programs Co-Director Dunbar said few people in the state have an accurate idea of what their exam will include.

    “Their sense is the Iowa Assessments are the Iowa Assessments,” Dunbar said. “Going forward, we’re talking about a very different and newly designed assessment and reporting structure and alignment system, all kinds of things that will change.”

    The state exam would be the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress, Co-Director Welch explained.

    “It’s explicitly aligned to the Iowa Core,” Welch said. “There’s a fair amount of confusion throughout the state about the existing Iowa Assessments and what’s being proposed for the spring of 2019.”

    That might partially explain the lack of support from education lobbyists for the legislative effort to return the testing contract to Iowa, which swept through the Statehouse with the House’s approval in a 94-3 vote and the Senate’s in a 39-10 vote.

    The Iowa Talented and Gifted Association, School Administrators of Iowa, Des Moines Public Schools, Rural School Advocates of Iowa and the Urban Education Network of Iowa all registered against House File 2235.

    In favor were the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees three public universities, including the University of Iowa, and by extension Iowa Testing Programs, joined only by a lobbyist representing insurance agents and health underwriters — who said he registered by mistake.

    Gazette reporter Vanessa Miller contributed to this article.

    l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.comcurrent

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