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So Who Should Decide How Iowa Tests Its Kids--Iowa or the Feds?

Iowa education officials will learn this spring whether the federal government will require statewide tests to determine if third- through eighth-grade public school students are making progress in reading and math.

Iowa politicians and educators believe local officials are best suited to assess academic progress. Still, they acknowledge the need for Iowa students to take the same test in order to comply with the federal legislation.

Noncompliance could mean the loss of $114 million in federal money.

Developing tests could cost Iowa millions of dollars, said Ted Stilwill, Iowa Department of Education director.

Maryland, for example, spent $56 million to develop, print, distribute and score new tests to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the new federal law that mandates all students to be proficient in reading and math no later than 2014.

Instead of a new test, Iowa "needs to spend the money on things directly related to improving student achievement, like professional development for teachers," Stilwill said.

Since passage of the federal law, Iowa officials have been worried that they would be forced to develop annual reading and math tests. State officials believe the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development, now used in nearly all of the state's 371 public school districts, meet the criteria.

The tests were developed according to standards of national organizations.

"We can show that national testing experts - outside of Iowa - support our position," Stilwill said.

The tests weren't designed to measure the skills a student has mastered, but rather compare the ability of one student with that of another.

However, Iowa education officials have worked with the tests' developers in Iowa City to establish a way to show whether students have mastered specific reading and math skills, Stilwill said.

Iowa will lose 40 years of testing trend data if it is required to develop new tests for each grade level and subject area, he said.

Top Iowa education officials want federal officials to understand that while local educators determine each district's curriculum and testing measures, they also are being held responsible for academic progress.

Stilwill and other educators believe the discussions have given federal officials a better understanding of Iowa's public education structure.

Federal officials are reviewing states' plans and will notify the states by late spring whether they meet guidelines. Five states' plans have been approved - Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts and New York.

States that fail to comply risk the loss of money for their Title I schools, the largest federal program to assist schools. The program provides money to improve reading and math instruction in schools with a high percentage of students living in or near poverty. Of Iowa's 1,115 elementary, middle and high schools, 797 are designated Title 1.

The federal legislation calls for schools to annually test third- through eighth-graders in reading and math beginning no later than 2005-06. Science will be added to the battery of tests in 2007-08. Iowa school districts now test students in at least fourth, eighth and 11th grades.

Schools then must show an annual increase in the percentage of students proficient in reading and math.

Schools also must show improvement among the entire student body as well as subgroups - those with disabilities, English-language learners, minorities and nonminorities, and those qualifying for free- or reduced-priced lunches.

The goal is for all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Iowa proposes that each district have an annual goal. While each public school district would begin at a different point, every district's goal in 2014 would be for 100 percent of students to be proficient.

A single, statewide annual goal would be difficult for some schools to meet, said Judy Jeffrey, who oversees the state's early-childhood, elementary and secondary programs.

In addition, individual district goals require high-performing schools to be accountable for ensuring that all their students are making improvements, she said.

"We want to promote the concept that everyone is responsible for improving student achievement, not just some schools," Jeffrey said.

States are required to publicly identify schools that don't meet the annual goals. Schools that fail two straight years face sanctions, which become more severe the longer students are unable to make adequate progress. Sanctions range from requiring districts to pay for supplemental services and replacing staff to ultimately being shut down.

While all schools must show gains, only those that receive money from Title 1 face sanctions.

Schools that don't receive federal money, but whose students fail to make adequate progress, will be tagged "needing improvement." The same designation also will be given to schools that receive federal money.

The Iowa State Board of Education will publicly recognize districts that make significant progress toward performance goals and reduce the academic achievement gap among various groups of students, officials said.

— Kathy A. Bolten
School-test plan faces review
Des Moines Register
March 3, 2003


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