116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If state lawmakers follow the recommendation of a task force, Iowa school districts will no longer use the Iowa Assessments, formerly known as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, to measure student achievement.
The task force, mandated as part of statewide education reform, determined the tests currently given to all third through eighth grade students and high school sophomores are not adequate, despite revamps, to accurately and reliably provide the level of information schools require.
The group recommends the state instead move to a collection of online assessments that have been developed by group of states operating under a federal grant.
The new tests, a product of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, offer 'computer adaptive” assessments of individual students, align to federal Common Core standards and promise to incorporate state education standards.
The Smarter Balanced assessments also carry a price tag nearly double that of current tests - it's not yet clear whether that burden will be shouldered by the state or individual school districts - and would require significant investments in technology for some schools.
Clearly, mandated assessments should be aligned to Iowa Core standards - they should, in fact, measure what we want our students to learn. Cost, alone, would not be reason enough to reject the task force's recommendation if the investment would directly lead to better instruction and better school performance.
We are not convinced it would.
And we worry that doubling down on assessment would lead to redoubled focus on test outcomes - what some call 'teaching to the test.”
Test scores never should be an end in themselves, but one tool among many to help schools better prepare students for work, citizenship and adult life.
Therefore, the question state leaders should be asking is not whether the Smarter Balanced assessments are better tests, but if, in a world of limited resources, they're an investment that will reap proportionate rewards.
WHY A NEW TEST?
Federal education officials have long stressed a need for a new type of student assessment to set a consistent and higher bar for the nation's schools. The officials wanted tests that would go 'beyond the bubble” and could measure student progress through open-ended and research-based questions, and funded development of such through the Race to the Top initiative.
After several states, including Iowa, applied for Race to the Top grants and promised to implement common academic standards and assessments, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that groups of states with at least 15 members could receive part of $362 million in federal funds to craft assessments based on federal Common Core standards.
Two groups came forward - the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) with 26 member states, and SBAC with 31 member states, including Iowa. The two received $170 million and $160 million respectively to begin development.
'As I travel around the country the number one complaint I hear from teachers is that state bubble tests pressure teachers to teach to a test that doesn't measure what really matters,” Duncan said when the awards were announced. 'Both of these winning applicants are planning to develop assessments that will move us far beyond this and measure real student knowledge and skills.”
In Iowa, students in third through eighth grades and high school sophomores have been taking the Iowa Assessments (formerly the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development) as part of state and federal testing mandates. These tests are developed by the Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa, and are used throughout the nation.
A lengthy report was released by the Iowa Department of Education in the fall of 2013, charging the Iowa Assessments were not aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Iowa Testing Programs did question the accuracy of the report while noting it already began the process of revamping its assessments in 2010. The group promised new tests in 2015 with 'a fully-aligned, valid, reliable and research-based assessment” known as New Generation Iowa Assessments.
But the stage had already been set.
As a part of an education reform package passed by Iowa lawmakers months before, a task force was established to research K-12 assessment options and a window was opened for a possible switch to begin in the 2016-17 school year.
The task force released its recommendations at the first of the year, suggesting state officials name Smarter Balanced as their statewide testing suite for math and reading. No recommendations were given regarding science testing, which is currently done as part of the Iowa Assessments, but the task force asked to be reconvened once new state science standards are approved.
The Next Generation Iowa Assessments were the task force's second choice, and Iowa Testing Programs likely will continue as the provider of the science tests even if math and reading are moved to Smarter Balanced.
How is it different?
The end goal of the Smarter Balanced Assessment is to have all students take a computerized test based on national standards, although a pencil and paper option will be available for a three-year period. The online environment is critical for the 'computer-adaptive” aspects of the test. That is, as a student completes the assessment, answers provided guide the program as to what questions should be next presented.
'The computer adaptive platform will benefit Iowa's students as compared to traditional fixed-form assessments … [because it] is better able to pinpoint the performance of students performing at both high and low levels of performance,” the task force noted.
The technology-based Smarter Balanced Assessments must be given to students within a 12-week window at the end of the school year. The timing is a disadvantage for some districts that have previously chosen to test in the fall or midyear. Some have questioned whether scores, likely to arrive in the summer, can effectively be scrutinized and applied. Will there be time to use the test scores as part of the access criteria for specialized reading programs, gifted programs or Advanced Placement courses?
Smarter Balanced also scores tests using a four-point scale, which differs from the existing three-point assessment. Districts have yet to determine how the new levels will be aligned with current tracking of student progress.
WHAT is THE COST?
Setting aside ongoing controversies surrounding Common Core standards, the most publicized concern regarding the move to Smarter Balanced is the increased price tag of the suite.
According to estimates provided to the task force, the New Generation Iowa Assessments, which would include math, reading and science, would cost about $15 per student. The Smarter Balanced Assessments, which only include math and reading, are estimated at $22.50 per student.
And, as Wisconsin state officials can attest, there is reason to doubt the cost estimate. Although Wisconsin schools budgeted for a cost of about $26 per student, the actual price tag was more than $33 per student - about $7.2 million more than what had been appropriated.
Wisconsin administrators also learned that the ability of the test to adapt to student response is a feature not expected to be functioning when they first test their students this spring.
While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's decision to strip funding for Smarter Balanced Assessments from the state budget is likely linked to ongoing national concerns for Common Core alignment, the cost gaffes and ongoing technical issues have bolstered his position.
School districts will need to have an adequate number of computers or tablets available to test students within the mandated 12-week window, and also will need reliable broadband access. A statewide assessment of the technological requirements for school districts has not been completed, but it is estimated that about 20 percent of Iowa districts will require additional resources.
The tests also will take more time away from instruction. While Iowa Assessments take between 2.5 and 4.5 hours to complete, Smarter Balanced Assessments are estimated at between 7.5 and 9.5 hours.
What is the goal?
Even if Smarter Balanced provides more detailed student information, it is difficult to understand how our cash-strapped districts will be able to use such data to enhance student learning.
Although there is no state standard on how school districts should use test scores to benefit students, school districts in the Corridor report they are factors in deciding classroom placements, in allocating specialized learning and tutoring resources and crafting curriculum.
More detailed data only will be useful if schools have adequate resources to act on it - to hire enough teachers for appropriately sized classrooms, to employ specialists and paraeducators to tailor lessons targeting students' needs.
Are Iowans being asked to choose between the cost of an administrator to oversee test score data-crunching or the cost of a classroom teacher? If so, we believe most Iowans will - and should - choose the teacher.
Likewise, if the choice before state lawmakers is to purchase unproven, expensive assessments with titillating bells and whistles or fully fund our school districts, we hope they choose to better fund our schools.
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