Education

New standardized tests setting a 'new baseline' for Iowa schools

For the first time in nearly a decade, Iowa's state assessments measure its core curriculum

Mary Pat Schulte asks for students' solutions during a math lesson using the 10-frame at Truman Elementary School in Ced
Mary Pat Schulte asks for students' solutions during a math lesson using the 10-frame at Truman Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Teachers and students at the school began using a new method in their math lessons last year and have seen improvement in standardized test scores. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — During a math lesson last week, first-graders at Truman Elementary whispered to each other as they attempted to add together three numbers less than 10.

They weren’t cheating. Instead, teachers in all grades at the Cedar Rapids elementary school encourage students to talk to each other as they think through problems — a strategy school officials think could account for the school’s higher than average scores on Iowa’s new statewide assessments.

Results of those tests, administered for the first time in the spring, are being sent to Cedar Rapids families this month.

Scores from the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress — known in schools as the ISASPs — show that, overall, 67 percent of students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District are at least proficient in English language arts, 62 percent are in math and 54 percent are in science.

Molly Duffy / The Gazette

The tests categorize students in grades 3 through 11 as advanced, proficient or not yet proficient in those three subjects.

“This is a call to action,” said John Rice, executive director of instructional services for Cedar Rapids schools. “Our mission is ‘every learner future ready,’ and so we need to make sure that we’re moving every single person to that.

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“Now we know what that gap is between ‘future ready’ and where our students are.”

District results are close to statewide averages — 70 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in English language arts, 70 percent in math and 57 percent in science.

Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said those results are not satisfying but also not unexpected, as the new set of tests are more difficult than the assessments they replaced.

Molly Duffy / The Gazette

Results point to stark achievement gaps

Cedar Rapids Schools’ results also highlighted deficiencies in educating students of color, students learning English and those in special education.

“We are not serving all of our students equally well,” Rice said. “We are not accomplishing our mission of ‘every learner future ready’ at our current state. I think we’ve identified that this is a problem, and we’ve made a strategic goal around it.”

The district has set goals of reducing the achievement gap in Cedar Rapids schools by 20 percent and of having 80 percent of all students scoring at least proficient by 2022.

Although the test results highlight problem areas in the school district, Rice said they also have provided valuable information after nearly a decade of unreliable data from a statewide assessment that did not measure what Iowa students were learning in the classroom.

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Molly Duffy / The Gazette

Those tests, the Iowa Assessments, were replaced by the ISASPs at the end of a years-long political process.

Developed at the University of Iowa, the Iowa Assessments were not aligned to the state’s Core curriculum standards. The UI also developed the ISASPs.

Hupp said this year’s results provide a more accurate view of student performance.

“This is a new test that is more challenging and better reflects what is being taught in classrooms because it is more aligned to our statewide academic standards,” Hupp said in an email. “The results set a baseline for future progress.”

Molly Duffy / The Gazette

Results from the new set of tests also is more detailed, and student reports include insights into students’ specific strengths and weaknesses. A student’s total math score, for example, is broken down to measures of his or her knowledge of algebra, fractions, data and geometry.

That level of detail is empowering for schools and for families, Rice said, as they look for ways to boost a student’s achievement.

“I think it’s more actionable for a family member,” he said.

The next window for schools to administer the annual ISASP tests will be April 20 to May 8, and results are expected six weeks after that testing window closes.

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

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