Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Smarter Way to Assess the Iowa Core

Last week I had a conversation with one of our teacher leaders about the Iowa Core, MAP Testing, and the Iowa Assessment. Among their many tasks, teacher leaders have been engaged with classroom practitioners working toward implementation of the Iowa Core with fidelity. Each week they meet with teachers in Professional Learning Communities and during common planning time to help with instructional strategies, formative assessments, and planning. A question was raised by a teacher in a recent meeting about how the Iowa Core, MAP Testing, and the Iowa Assessment all tied together. In an ideal educational setting, content would be delivered and then educators would assess the students on the attainment of this content. Based on how the students did on the test, teachers would be able to determine if their instruction was effective. In this era of 'No Child Left Behind' and increased accountability, it also serves as a litmus to determine whether or not a school is labeled as 'In Need of Assistance', and if so labeled can ultimately lead to sanctions.

The short answer is the nexus of the Iowa Core and the Iowa Assessments is that they don't tie together very well at all. What we have is an Iowa Core curriculum that is mandated, and the Iowa Assessment (designed to measure the Iowa Core) that is also mandated.

This should be concerning to us. You see, we are required by law to implement the Iowa Core in our schools. Just to be clear, I continue to support this work and believe there is much value in ensuring that our students have a clear set of expectations and standards in our schools that are transferable and rigorous. Please see my article from September 30th titled, "We Use the Iowa Core--Which is Not Exactly the Same as the Common Core" for an explanation on the development of the Iowa Core and how it relates to it's sometimes infamous cousin the Common Core. 

Saying you are implementing the Iowa Core and knowing you are implementing the Iowa Core are two different things. The way we know we are implementing the Core is by assessing it. The Legislature has given some direction on the assessment that we are to use by requiring the Iowa Assessment. The problem is that the Iowa Assessment doesn't measure the Iowa Core. This misalignment is well documented and studied by numerous entities. You can read the study commissioned by the Iowa Department of Education right here. This should also be concerning to us.

Let's pause and think about this for a second: We are required to implement the Iowa Core and assess it with an instrument that doesn't actually measure the Iowa Core.

There are many reasons for this misalignment, but perhaps it boils down to the fact that the assessment came before the Iowa Core. Look, this is really the same test that I took as a student in school, except we used to call it the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. I am going to date myself a little bit here, but I was taking these tests in 1980! The biggest difference now appears to be that some of the graphics contained in the tests are in color!

If this seems a little bit backward to you then you are not alone. The process should have included the development of what we want our kids to know and be able to do as the first order of business, then we should have figured out how we were going to assess it. Instead, the exact opposite happened!

We are about to see a very interesting debate unfold in our state when the 2015 General Assembly convenes in January. I'm going to call it "The Great Assessment Debate". The legislature had previously directed the Iowa Department of Education to form a commission to study the assessment system in Iowa and make a recommendation as to what assessment we should use to measure the Iowa Core. They have now completed that work and are prepared to move forward with a recommendation that we use the Smarter Balance Assessment. Additionally the commission points out that the administration of the Smarter Balance Assessment is more expensive than the Iowa Assessment and further recommends an appropriation to cover this increased cost. I understand the State Board of Education is also expected to weigh in on this assessment before it ultimately ends up with the legislature. I am unsure of what they will decide but have to believe they will make a decision that is based on which assessment best measures the Iowa Core.

According to this commission, the Smarter Balance does a much better job of measuring the implementation of the Iowa Core. To be sure, moving away from the Iowa Assessment will represent the departure of a long held Iowa school tradition. 

Tradition or not, we need an instrument that properly measures what we are teaching in our schools.

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