Task force recommends new test for Iowa students

Smarter Balanced assessments could be implemented in 2016-2017

CEDAR RAPIDS — A statewide task force is recommending a new standardized test for Iowa students, one that more closely aligns to Common Core standards and adapts to students as they take it on computers.

However, the same things that make the exam appealing to legislators have raised concerns among educators.

The Smarter Balanced assessment — one of two tests selected by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to assess students based on the controversial Common Core State Standards — could be adopted by the state Legislature early next year for implementation in the 2016-17 school year.

In a 20-1 vote Tuesday, a state task force chose the new test over an updated version of the Iowa Assessment partly because it is administered on computers, rather than using paper and pencil, and it adapts to each student by adjusting the difficulty of each question based on the student’s response to previous questions.

As a result, task force members felt the Smarter Balanced test is both more accurate and better aligned with the Iowa Core and Common Core education standards, said State Department of Education spokesperson Staci Hupp.

“What we have now is not in any way a bad measure,” Hupp said. “It’s just that it doesn’t measure everything that we need the tests to measure.”

But schools might have trouble actually implementing the test when the 2016-17 school year arrives, said Iowa City Community School District curriculum director Pam Ehly, because some schools simply don’t have enough computers.

“If you asked me to do it today, given our current technology resources, in some of the (high) schools it might take two to three months to give the test,” Ehly said. “If you had 900 students, and you could only test 120 students at a time, and the test is four hours, you just start adding it up.”

The task force considered that potential problem but felt a start date of fall 2016 would give schools enough time to prepare, said Mark Lane, the principal of Jensen Elementary School in Urbandale and a task force member. The Smarter Balanced test offers a paper-and-pencil option during an initial three-year transition period, according to the Smarter Balanced consortium’s website.

In choosing the Smarter Balanced test, the task force recommended moving away from the Iowa Assessment, which has been used in its current version since 2011. Both assessments are administered to students in grades 3-8 and 11. The Smarter Balanced test only focuses on reading and math, however, whereas the Iowa Assessment also includes science and social studies components.

Lane said the Smarter Balanced test would cost between $22.50 and $29 per student, while the updated Iowa Assessment would cost about $15 per student. The Smarter Balanced package also includes optional tests for teachers to give in the classroom in addition to the standardized tests required by state and federal law.

State Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janseville, said the state has focused too much on testing, especially with regard to the Common Core. Salmon has been a vocal opponent of the Common Core.

“(Standardized testing) really is only a small part of the big picture of educating a child,” Salmon said.

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