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Iowa Students To Take New Standardized Tests; Federal Funds At Stake

Stanstead School

Iowa’s elementary and high school students will be taking brand new standardized tests this school year.   They will take the place of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, otherwise known as the Iowa Assessments, that students have taken for decades.    

The new tests will help meet new state and federal requirements, but they’re still under development and that makes some educators nervous. 

Six years ago, Iowa became the last state in the country to adopt  statewide standards for English, Math and Science known as the Iowa Core Curriculum. Since then the state has been trying to come up with new assessments to match the new standards.        

Federal law requires that the standards and the exams should be aligned.  Staci Hupp at the Iowa Department of Education says the state failed a federal review of its traditional Iowa Assessments.   

“And so the next step then is to develop the new test that will again be subjected to peer review,” Hupp said.     

"We are a perfect entity to deliver this." -Catherine Welch, Iowa Testing Programs

But agreeing on who would develop the new test has been a struggle.      

First, in 2015 a state task force of teachers and administrators chose an assessment called Smarter Balanced which was developed by a consortium of states.

In 2017, the legislature rejected that recommendation and ordered the Department of Education to start a new bidding process.  American Institutes for Research then submitted the winning bid over Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa.

Again rejecting that result, with HF2235 this year the Iowa legislature awarded the project to Iowa Testing Programs, the maker of the older ITBS and Iowa Assessments.

Many Educators Not Happy With the Choice 

“We believe that politics got in the way of what was going to be best educationally for students,” said School Administrators of Iowa Legislative Services Director David Wilkerson, who lobbied against the bill.

Wilkerson and others are concerned the new assessments under development at Iowa Testing Programs won’t be matched up with the Iowa Core, so they won’t test what’s being taught.

“The University of Iowa said they were going to develop an assessment that did align,” Wilkerson said.  “They didn't have one at that point in time so we were going on, I guess, faith.” 

Educators are also unhappy that lawmakers rejected their expertise on the task force. 

Explaining the legislature's vote, Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, chairman of the House Education Committee, says the Smarter Balanced assessments were more expensive.  He says “you could say” it should be the legislature and not the Department of Education making the decision, since lawmakers have to pay for the “bells and whistles” of the more expensive test.

"We believe that politics got in the way." - David Wilkerson, School Administrators of Iowa

“The biggest thing I heard talked about, number one, was cost,” Rogers said.  “Number two, just being comfortable with an Iowa company, developing an Iowa test, kind of an Iowa brand.”

“Iowa testing programs through the College of Education on the University of Iowa campus has been part of the state assessment program for generations in the state,” added Co-Director Catherine Welch. “We feel like we are a perfect entity to deliver this within the state.

“There is no research or development cost associated with this,” she continued.  “We see this as part of our mission to the state.”

Reassurances from Iowa Testing Programs

Welch  is assuring educators and others that the new test, the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress or ISASP, will be matched up with the Iowa Core.

“We feel comfortable about the alignment from both of our studies this summer,” Welch said.  “We have a couple months window where we can make final changes and finalize the test materials by sort of mid-fall.” 

That would be in time for the tests to be taken by an estimated 360,000 Iowa students in the spring.

"We don't really know what the Iowa assessment will be." - ISEA President Mike Beranek

Since losing the bid to Smarter Balanced, Welch said Iowa Testing Programs has added new grade specific content to the tests, created different combinations of test questions, and altered the complexity of test questions.

Some teachers are glad the new assessments are on the way.    

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek  taught third grade in West Des Moines for 30 years.  

“I am relieved that we may be coming up with a system that will assess what we are teaching in the classroom,” Beranek said.  “It was hard to have a conversation with parents when we got those test scores because there was very little connection to what I was doing on a daily basis.” 

A new federal review will occur after the tests are administered in the spring.  Officials at both the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Testing Programs say they believe the state will pass this time. 

"We are expecting that we will be in full complaince with ... federal law by next year," Hupp said.

David Wilkerson hopes so, too.

“We’ll keep our fingers cross that the alignment’s actually there,” Wilkerson said. “We would sure hate to implement something and have the feds tell us it didn't meet the requirements and put some of our federal funds at risk.”    

Test developers have scheduled workshops in the coming weeks to help schools adapt to the technical requirements of the new exams, which will be administered either online or with paper and pencil.    Officials say they expect most schools will take the online option.  

Story was edited on 8/27 at 11:58 to correct the winning bid for the state contract over Iowa Testing Programs.   The winning bid came from American Institutes for Research, not Smarter Balanced.