DES MOINES — Iowa schoolchildren struggled under stricter federal testing standards this year with nearly two in every three Iowa schools failing to meet testing standards.
Overall, 869 of the state’s 1,361 public schools, or roughly 64 percent, missed testing targets in reading, mathematics and test participation. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than last year’s scores when 52 percent of the state’s schools missed.
But benchmarks jumped significantly between the two years, something new Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck was quick to point out during a conference call with journalists Tuesday.
In last year’s benchmarks, 80 percent of a school’s student body had to meet standards to make what’s called “adequate yearly progress;” 94 percent of the student body had to meet the benchmarks for this year’s results. Next year, it moves to 100 percent.
“No Child Left Behind’s arbitrary rules fail to recognize that students come to school with different starting points,” Buck said. “The rules also fail to reward schools that are making progress with the most disadvantaged students.”
No Child Left Behind is a 2001 law that required states to develop standardized basic skills tests for their students. The law also required that the percentage of students who meet or exceed the standards set on the test increase each year until the 100 percent mark in 2014.
States routinely request waivers from the federal requirements, and the majority of those are granted by the U.S. Department of Education. Last year, Iowa’s waiver request was rejected because it did not have a system to marry student test scores to teacher evaluations, according to Iowa Department of Education officials who were, at the time, lobbying for such a system in the state’s education reform bill.
On Tuesday, Buck said the department is “still exploring options with the waiver” but would not say if the state will try for one, despite his criticism of the federal law. Buck added the accountability brought into play with the federal law was good, although he would like to see revisions on how it marks which schools are considered failing.
University of Northern Iowa College of Education Dean Dwight Watson said he sees value in the law’s requirement to test all children and segregate the results along different socio-economic lines, such as English language learners, African American students and others.
But, he said, the resulting scoring can be unfair.
“I think it’s inherently flawed when you have one group that fails then it means the entire school fails,” he said.
Patty Link, state director for the education reform group Students First, called the results “unacceptable” and criticized the state for not doing more to obtain a waiver from the federal mandate.
“While Director Buck was right to point out the problems with NCLB proficiency requirements, what was missing from his statement was how Iowa got itself into this untenable situation,” she said in a prepared statement. “The state legislature should approach the subject with a stronger sense of urgency and act immediately upon returning in 2014 to implement the policies required to put forward a competitive waiver application.”