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Iowa Test on way out of classrooms?

Student fill out answers to a test with a pencil.

What is the Iowa Test of Basic Skills?

A) Standardized K-8 tests developed in the 1930s primarily as a tool to improve teaching
B) A test that allows you to compare your child’s score in certain subjects to children across the country
C) A test that originated in Iowa and was once widely administered in classrooms across the country but could now be on the chopping block
D) All of the above

Score one for yourself if you filled in the bubble next to D with your No. 2 pencil.

The state that was the birthplace for the set of standardized tests that public school students took for decades is considering doing away with the Iowa Test in favor of new, still-under-development tests that proponents say will more accurately measure a student’s progress. 

Jason Glass, Iowa Department of Education director, is leading the push to replace the Iowa tests with assessments being developed by a consortium of 29 states called SMARTER Balanced. (Another state consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is working on similar new tests.)

“I think in the future those (new) assessments will give everyone more comparative leverage about how their students are doing,” Glass told the state Senate Education Committee last month.

The new tests under development will “go beyond just memorizing and regurgitating facts,” says Iowa Education Department spokeswoman Staci Hupp. They won't be all multiple choice. And because they'll be done on computers – not with paper and pencil – teachers and students will get the results much quicker, in part because schools won’t have to send in the results for scoring.

The new assessments will also allow for state-by-state comparisons – something that was difficult to do when states started developing their own standards in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President George Bush in 2002.

No Child required that public schools in all states administer a statewide standardized test annually to all students, if those states were to receive federal funding. The act allowed states to set their own standards.

Before No Child, most states used the Iowa tests; after it, most states moved to develop their own standardized tests.

The Iowa standardized tests – largely multiple-choice bubble-sheet tests that cover subjects such as reading, writing, math, social studies and science – have been administered by the University of Iowa since 1935.  They are “norm-referenced tests,” which are designed to compare students to other students across the nation along a Bell curve.

Although any states still use ITBS for evaluating curriculum and instruction, only Iowa uses it as the state assessment for accountability purposes, according to Hupp.

The new tests under development by the SMARTER Balanced consortium will be “criterion-referenced,” meaning they will measure how well a student performs against an objective or criterion rather than another student.

“The idea is that criteria-referenced tests will give us more information about what students are and aren’t learning,” says Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association. “There will be richer data on the individual level, giving classroom teachers the feedback that they need.”

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, has long complained that No Child led to a proliferation of poor-quality standardized tests across the country. What's more, these tests were being used to make high-stakes decisions about students' and teachers' futures.

“When we use shoddy, fill-in-the bubble tests as the basis for an accountability system – tests that frequently aren't aligned with what's being taught in classrooms – so-called accountability systems lose all credibility. It doesn’t make sense to students, educators, parents, or credible testing experts, and now they’re fighting back,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said last month in a statement.

“Well-designed assessment systems do have a critical role in student success. We should use assessments to help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve their practice and provide extra help to the students who need it,” he added.

Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open testing, a group that lobbies against the misuse of standardized tests, says no single measure should be used to determine a student’s prospects for success or failure.

“Our basic approach is we believe these kinds of tests … are not the way to go to assess our children. We advocate multiple forms of assessments,” he said.

The new assessments being developed by SMARTER Balanced aren’t expected to be ready before 2014, so for the time being, Iowa students will continue to take some version of the ITBS. And it'll be up to Iowa lawmakers to decide if ITBS goes away for good.

“I think we have to be careful,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, a retired teacher and ranking member on the House Education Committee, according to the Sioux City Journal. “We don’t know what Smarter Balanced is going to look like because no one has seen it yet.”


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