DES MOINES — Assessment tests — new and more frequently given — are the buzzword coming from the Iowa Department of Education.
On Tuesday, Director Jason Glass announced the department would more closely monitor school districts that are supposed to be following a Response to Intervention program of frequent assessments to gauge how well students are picking up math and reading lessons.
Then on Thursday, department officials announced that a special task force — one of six called for in an education reform bill passed in the last legislative session — decided on the GOLD online assessment to test incoming kindergartners.
While lawmakers returned to the Statehouse to elect their leadership and pick out their seats, the Branstad administration was gearing up for another run at education reform, which will likely include an attempt to adopt new testing systems for all of Iowa’s schoolchildren.
It’s not a situation that’s unique to the Hawkeye state. For years, and especially in the decade after the federal No Child Left Behind Act, experts have debated about teaching to the test, high-stakes testing and the perils of possibly testing too much, as well as the data that drives those decisions.
“Overall, our assessment strategy hasn’t been to add so much as it is to update, improve and replace,” Glass said in an email. “An important distinction is between summative assessments, which are given at the end of the year and used primarily for accountability purposes, and formative assessments, which are given throughout the year and are used primarily for instructional purposes.”
THE TOO-MUCH DEBATE
Massachusetts is the gold standard in the United States for high-achieving school districts. Internationally, Finland and Singapore are typically mentioned as being among the best. But the Finnish don’t use a lot of high-stakes testing, while the Singapore system does. Massachusetts uses some, but exactly where they fall among the 50 states isn’t that easy to tell.
“I don’t even think you can make that type of comparison anymore,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for Fair Test. “What has happened in the last 20 years or so with education reform is each state keeps changing its system — rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak — with new and different tests that it’s almost impossible to track.”
Fair Test is a national non-profit group that advocates for less high-stakes testing. Those are tests that have hard consequences for students (such as not being able to graduate) or for a school (such as being labeled “failing”). Instead, Schaeffer said, students should be tested so teachers can determine what help students need and address those problems.
But the lingering question is how much assessment is too much? Google the phrase “too much testing” and you’ll get 1.2 million results. It’s a question that’s perplexed governors, legislators, educators and parents for more than a decade.
Some states have even put blocks on the amount of time students can test, according to the nonpartisan Education Commission for the States.
Colorado, for example, limits the time each assessment can take to “no more than four hours,” excluding the ACT test for college preparation. Illinois, meanwhile, dictates a maximum of 38 testing hours a year for students in grades 3-8 while North Carolina limits the time for test-taking strategies and practice tests to “no more than two days of instructional time per year.”
Kathy Christie, vice president of knowledge/information management and dissemination for the Education Commission of the States, said the best school systems don’t teach to the test, but integrate the concepts that are going to be tested into lesson plans.
“If you walk into any good school, you do not see teaching to the test,” Christie said. “You see teaching for understanding. The understanding the concept is what you need to pass the test.”
Iowa has no such hard-and-fast rules on how much time schools can teach testing strategies or, with few exceptions, what assessments they can use or when they can use them to quiz students.
As a case in point, Glass made clear during his Tuesday announcement that although the state was going to make sure that teachers were giving assessments at least three times a year to all students, the department didn’t dictate what assessments needed to be offered or how long those assessments needed to take.
That gives superintendents, principals and teachers pretty wide latitude.
Some schools, such as the Sioux City School District high schools, offer elective credits to juniors who take a semester-long test ACT test preparation course. Other districts, including Waterloo, don’t have such a formalized testing preparation program.
“It is informal, but that’s nothing new,” said Waterloo Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Jane Lindaman. She added that test-taking tips have been offered by teachers for decades.
And some schools have been quick to adopt new assessments. Principals and staff from Madison Elementary School in Muscatine and Madison Elementary School in Davenport were both in Des Moines last week to pick up an award for bringing up test scores for traditionally lower-scoring racial groups in their classrooms.
In addition to a name, both schools share a philosophy of frequent assessment of their students, followed by individualized help for the students who struggle. It’s the Resource to Intervention model that Glass was promoting in his Tuesday conference.
“Looking ahead, I do expect us to engage in a larger discussion about our assessment system in 2014 as the Smarter Balanced assessments become an option,” Glass wrote.
Smarter Balanced is a test being developed by a consortium of states for a full rollout in 2014-15.
“It is my goal to keep Iowa involved, informed and able to make a good decision about Smarter Balanced,” he added. “The main advantages are that it is an assessment tightly aligned to the common-core, the standards which make up the backbone of our Iowa Core,” Glass said. “In reading and math, it is a computer-adaptive assessment so results come back much more quickly than a paper-pencil test, and it tests higher order skills such as critical thinking instead of simple fact recall. These are all elements we should be considering for our assessment redesign.