Unacceptable testing selection delay

Occasionally in past columns I’ve discussed events that for me were head-scratchers. Here’s another one.

Iowa has statewide learning standards for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards operate to make sure all schools teach what educators agree is essential for students to learn at each grade level in reading, math and science.

The logical way to know if schools are teaching, and students are learning, those standards is to test students periodically about the knowledge they are to acquire in those areas. Remember the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Iowa Tests of Education Development from your school years? Those types of tests are what the state has been using to make sure schools are doing their job.

But nowadays there’s a disconnect between the state’s learning standards and its standardized tests. A review by a national task force found that our tests don’t test what our standards require students to learn in the classroom.
Obviously not an effective way to educate kids.

So in 2013, an appointed Iowa task force carefully reviewed eight different testing systems. It took 13 months to complete the detailed review. When it was all over, the task force recommended the Smarter Balanced exams, which are headquartered at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

The Iowa Department of Education agreed, and set about adopting the recommendation.

That was three years ago. The recommendation remains in limbo.

That’s because a number of Iowa legislators, for various reasons, don’t like the task force’s recommendation for the Smarter Balanced exams.

Some of them say the recommended tests are too expensive.

Others prefer to use tests based in Iowa; the current tests, in effect for many years, were developed by Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa.

There may be other reasons as well.

There’s a bill moving through the Legislature — Senate File 240 — which would require the state department of education to start over with its test selection process, and would demand that cost be included as a factor. Iowa Testing Programs’ Next Generation Iowa Assessments may well be the lowest-cost system.

The situation raises several obvious questions.

If cost is to be required as a factor in the decision, why wasn’t that stipulated before the task force started its careful study back in 2013? Why should where the tests originate be so important when it comes to making sure students are learning what they’re supposed to be?

Remember the Iowa gas tax task force of a few years ago? It was a blue-ribbon panel with representatives from many economic sectors, the Legislature, the Iowa executive branch, economists and others. After months of study, the panel recommended an increase in the state’s fuel tax. Many groups, including the Iowa Farm Bureau which had representation on the task force, agreed.

But Gov. Branstad did not. He rejected his own task force’s proposal, and a fuel tax increase had to wait several years before legislative leaders finally strong-armed it through to passage.

S.F. 240 was approved by the Iowa House 94 to 3 on Tuesday. If it is approved in the Senate and signed by the governor, the new educational tests would take effect in 2018-19, some five years after the alignment process began with the task force whose recommendations will have been supplanted by legislative fiat, for non-education reasons.

This isn’t a small matter.

Federal law requires that state standards be aligned with state assessments. Millions of federal dollars are at stake.

It wouldn’t hurt to put better education at the top of the list of factors that decide which tests to select.

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