Smarter Balanced Assessments: Implications for Iowa School Leaders

Members of the Iowa Department of Education’s Assessment Task Force have recommended that Iowa lawmakers adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments as Iowa’s new state test for public and accredited nonpublic schools starting with the 2016-17 school year.  Iowa students are currently required to complete Iowa Assessments in grades 3-8 and 11 in math and reading to meet state and federal accountability laws. The Iowa Assessments (formerly Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development) are developed by Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa and used for various purposes in other states as well.

Why do we need new assessments?
"The Iowa Department of Education released a report in October 2013 that was commissioned in March 2013 to align the Iowa Assessments, Form E, to the Iowa Core/Common Core State Standards in Reading and Mathematics. The study compared Form E to a set of standards that were not used to develop Form E." (Source: Iowa Testing Programs)  Yes, you read that right: Our current state standards were not used to develop our current state accountability assessment!  The Iowa Department of Education commissioned a study to "determine the level of alignment between our Iowa Core standards and the reading and math portions of the Iowa Assessments in grades 3-8, 10 and 11."  The nearly two hundred page report released in October 2013 suggests it varies greatly by grade level ranging from under 50% to 100%.  To be fair, Iowa Testing Programs' response questions the study's methodology while acknowledging Form E was not designed to assess our current state standards.  In summary, Iowa school districts are currently in a predicament: we are required to teach state standards while being held accountable via assessments that were not designed to accurately measure the required standards.  

What are the Smarter Balanced Assessments? 
The Smarter Balanced Assessment system, initially designed to align with the Common Core ELA and math standards in grades 3-8 and 11—"includes both summative assessments for accountability purposes and optional interim assessments for instructional use—will use computer adaptive testing technologies to the greatest extent possible to provide meaningful feedback and actionable data that teachers and other educators can use to help students succeed." Smarter Balanced is one of two national assessments being developed to assess students on the common core. (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is the competing assessment group some states have voluntarily joined.)  In addition to selected response (multiple choice) items, students will complete technology-enhanced items, constructed response items (non-multiple choice), and performance tasks.  Sample Smarter Balanced items and performance tasks are available online and the first operational testing in other states will begin in Spring 2015.

Nostalgia and economic impact: my first reaction
When I first read about the task force's recommendation I was a bit surprised.  I remember taking the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills as a third grade student at South Elementary.  We had to put prop special folders up on our desk to ensure classmates in our pod would not be able to see our answers.  We were required to use #2 pencils and to do our best filling in the bubbles as neatly as possible.  In a way, the Iowa Tests are as much a part of our state as attending the Iowa State Fair or picking up sweet corn in August along the road from a local farmer.   The Iowa Assessments are written by Iowans and administered to Iowa students annually.  Without a doubt, losing this contract would be a negative blow to Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa and an economic hit to Iowa's Creative Corridor.  Like the Iowa Assessments or not, it may be hard for some Iowa educators to imagine administering an assessment that does not include the infamous introduction,

"You are now going to take a vocabulary test. Please find the section for Vocabulary on
page 3 of your answer document. (Pause). Now turn to page 1 in your test booklet. Please read the directions for this test silently while I read them aloud."
Oh, those were the days of sharpening #2 pencils and watching the clock closely to count down the remaining time left for each test!

Implications for Iowa school leaders
Nostalgia aside, school leaders should seriously begin thinking through some of the implications adopting the Smarter Balanced Assessments might have on their buildings/districts. A number of Iowa schools piloted the Smarter Balanced Assessments during the 2013-14 school year, however my understanding is that none of these buildings administered the entire battery of tests.  If Iowa legislators require the Smarter Balanced Assessments during the upcoming legislative session, several implementation questions come to mind for school leaders to consider:
  • What assessments will students in grades 5, 8 and 11 complete in order to meet Iowa's statewide science assessment requirement? (Will we continue with the Iowa Assessments?  What about social studies, even though it is not required?)
  • How will student "growth" be measured using the Iowa Assessments (past) and Smarter Balanced Assessments (future)?  We will be transitioning from "Not Proficient, Proficient and Highly Proficient" to Smarter Balanced Assessments' four achievement levels. (H/T Karen W.)
  • Because the Smarter Balanced Assessments will all be eventually be administered online, what type of technology infrastructure (number of devices, bandwidth, etc.) will be needed?
  • Will adequate funding be appropriated to school districts to purchase the Smarter Balanced Assessments?  The full suite of summative and interim assessments and the Digital Library on formative assessment is estimated to cost $27.30 per student.  This is compared to less than $10.00 per Iowa student for the Iowa Assessments.
  • Because the Smarter Balanced Assessments must be administered during a twelve week window at the end of the school year, how will this impact schools who are used to administering the Iowa Assessments during the fall or midyear?
  • How will schools realistically plan test schedules when the assessment is untimed? (Source pdf)
  • Given the Smarter Balanced Assessments only measure the Common Core Standards and Iowa has added several additional standards to create the Iowa Core Essential Concepts and Skills, would this transition de-value our state's added standards? 
  • How might any changes recommended by state standards task forces during the next several years align (or not) with the required state assessments? 
Finally, school leaders should keep in mind this change would not take place until 2016-17 at the earliest and is now in the hands of our state's elected officials.  Iowa initially joined the Smarter Balanced Consortium several years ago and then later withdrew as a governing state, illustrating our state's roller coaster relationship with this assessment.  If Iowa legislators approve the task force's recommendation, our student assessment system will experience the first major overhaul in quite a few years.  Stay tuned!  

Iowa state standards under review

I subscribe to the Iowa Department of Education's YouTube channel and after listening to the November 2014 edition, I am thankful to have watched this episode.

Under Governor Branstand's Executive Order 83, Iowa will begin this fall regularly reviewing its state K-12 standards:

The review of science standards will be followed by reviews of the other parts of Iowa’s statewide standards, which cover social studies, mathematics, English language arts and 21st century skills. Each review will follow a similar format.
I have a lot more questions than answers about what this means for Iowa's schools right now.   Here are a few questions mulling through my mind:

  • What impact might this science review have on Iowa's adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards?
  • One of the selling points to Iowa educators after adopting state standards for the first time in 2008 (and later modifying math and ELA in 2010 to align with the Common Core) was that districts would be spending less time chasing standards documents and more time focusing on quality instruction.  If any of the content standards significantly change in the near future, school leaders around the state can expect to hear an outcry from classroom teachers...and rightly so, in my opinion.  How much will the standards change, if at all?
  • Will this be an opportunity for our state's science, social studies and 21st century skills to move towards grade-level rather than grade-span standards?
  • How might this review process (positively or negatively) influence the movement to create state fine arts standards
  • What will the review process look like and what type of timeline will there be for each content area? (This question will likely be answered in the near future)
  • How might this process influence the state's assessment task force charged in 2013 to "study the state’s assessment needs and to recommend a new state assessment for public and accredited nonpublic schools"? 
  • ...and a likely political hot topic: How might this review process impact Iowa's current involvement with the Common Core State Standards?  Presumably, any significant changes to the Iowa's math and/or English Language Arts standards that come out of the review process would require Iowa to change its status as a Common Core state.  Why?  "To allow for some state-level customization, a provision in the voluntary adoption guidelines allows states to supplement the common core standards with state-specific standards, up to an additional 15 percent," however removing standards is not allows. (Source)
On a somewhat related note, is anyone else pleased with the new IowaCore.gov website rolled out by Department of Education?

I can see the Iowa Core parent guides coming in handy during parent/teacher conferences and in conversations with parents who are interested in learning more about what their students are learning in school.  

Looking back five years from now, will this review process significantly change what our students are expected to know and be able to do?  I look forward to reflecting again in November 2019!

There's no such thing as the "Common Core Police"

If you're active in social media, you've likely seen something along the lines of...


Note: Rather than drafting a response, I initially thought I could ignore these types of posts or simply invite those closest to me into a conversation outside of social media.  With the number of these posts increasing by the day (or perhaps I am now starting to look for them),  I thought it might be helpful to post my thoughts in one place for easy reading, in the event a few heads might be turned.  Here it is:

Hello!  As a district curriculum director and former high school math teacher,  *I thought it might be helpful to let you know this specific type of homework is not required by the Common Core State Standards.  In fact, the third grade standards mention the word "subtraction" two times. 

One of the third grade subtraction standards says:
"Fluently add and subtract within 1000 using strategies and algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction." (Source
I don't know about you, but that sounds to me like a pretty reasonable thing to ask students to learn (and not at all related to the photo!). You might be wondering..."then why are students being required to do this particular subtraction method if it's in a textbook associated with the Common Core?" 

Here's the quick answer in the form of an analogy: Sports memorabilia and clothing are often licensed by the NFL, NBA or MLB.  In other words, if you want to wear a real Chicago Cubs hat, it will have a Cubs logo and MLB logo on it indicating it has been authorized by Major League Baseball.  This is in stark contrast to educational publishers.  There's no such thing as the Common Core Police  For example, if you and I wanted to create a math textbook and stamp "Aligned with the Common Core" on it, we could and no one would stop us from doing so. We could write the most ridiculous math strategies into the textbook. Parents and students across the country would falsely assume this type of learning was synonymous with the Common Core State Standards. It's that easy and it's happening all around us.  Check it out for yourself.  Compare the approaches of the fifth grade textbooks in two neighboring school districts in Iowa and you'll likely see two different philosophies towards teaching the standards.  The Common Core State Standards establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.

Bottom line: the Common Core State Standards aren't perfect. I invite you to read the standards first hand and come to your own conclusions rather than relying on textbook publishers, bloggers and commentators outside the classroom walls to paint a picture for you. 

I'd be happy to talk with you more about it on the phone or in person if you're interested in learning more based on my work with the standards, publishers and most importantly, teachers.  

---
*While the homework problem you posted on your social space may be different, the same ideas I've discussed below likely apply to your situation as well.  


A sample process for identifying reporting standards

In my work with our district and in consulting with several others over the years on the topics of professional learning communities and standards-based grading/reporting, the topic of aligning standards horizontally and vertically frequently comes up.  Before I share a sample process of this alignment work, I thought it might be helpful to answer two frequently asked questions:

Who should be involved in writing, creating, revising the standards we will report to students and parents?
My first response is almost always, "teachers!"  Teachers are the professionals closest to this work and I believe they should play a large role in this decision-making process.  While the district office can provide protocols and templates, we're not teaching these skills and concepts, so it doesn't make sense for us to mandate an arbitrary list without significant teacher input.

Wouldn't it be easier if we copied another district's report card or list of standards?
Sure, it might be easier in the short term.  When the standards are written in a way that doesn't make sense to those teaching them, it becomes easy to throw the standards under the bus.  When the reporting standards need revision and they were written locally, a solution becomes obvious: we can revise them!  It is also important to note that in all of the schools I have worked with, teachers report the most benefit from doing this work.  They learn more about the intent of the state/national standards.  Teachers dig deeper into the wording of the standards and pay closer attention to what a thorough understanding might look like as a result of the cognitive dissonance this process can create.

Now that we hopefully agree teachers should play a prominent role in drafting reporting standards, it only makes sense to share with you a process that seems to be gaining some traction.  It is far from perfect, but I hope it assists at least one person.  (If you find this literacy example beneficial, I'd love to hear from you in the comments).

--
1. LOOK AT STATE STANDARDS
2. IDENTIFY "NEED TO KNOW' STANDARDS

A possible protocol that can be used to discern the "need to know" power standards that will appear on the report card.  

i) For each standard, individually complete the following template
ii) Reach consensus on the Yes and No's through horizontal (i.e. all of the 2nd grade teachers) discussion.

iii) If a standard has 3-4 "Yes," it should strongly be considered in the "Need to Know" (Power Standard) category to be included on the report card.

iv) Depending on the number of 4s and perhaps 3s, the team will need to determine a reasonable number of standards that can be assessed and reporting in each reporting period.

v) After horizontal agreement, meet with at least one grade level above (i.e. second grade teachers meet with third grade teachers) and at least one grade level below (i.e. fourth grade teachers meet with third grade teachers) to reach vertical consensus on the list of "need to know" power standards proposed for the report card.

[IF NEEDED, RE-WRITE THESE STANDARDS INTO PARENT/STUDENT-FRIENDLY LANGUAGE]
  • Example 6th grade reading parent/student-friendly language (from Waukee Middle School, Iowa)

3. IDENTIFY ASSESSMENTS THAT MATCH THE STANDARDS
  • Look at the assessments you are already giving to students.  
  • Match up prompts/questions that elicit students' understanding.
Sample rubric below (used with permission from Lori Davidson, Center Point - Urbana teacher)

You may find out your assessments are not as well aligned to the standards as you'd like.  This is an opportunity to revise assessments and/or create new ones that better align to the "need to know" standards. 

4. (TRY IT OUT!) GIVE STUDENTS SCORES BASED ON STANDARDS FOR ONE UNIT 
  • Administer and score at least one of the assessments you identified in Step #3 to discern the coarse or fine grain-ness of the standards (see note below).
By completing the steps above, each horizontal team of teachers will begin to figure out the appropriate number of "need to know" standards for each reporting period.  When it is challenging to score the assessments based on the standards, the standards may be too vague.  When it becomes challenging to keep up with scoring and reassessments (or if it is challenging to write reassessments), the standards may be too specific.  Finally, the number of "need to know" standards must be viable enough for the majority of students to learn them in a given year.  It is more important for students to learn...than it is to merely cover the content!



Standards-Based Grading: College admissions

A teacher from a local school district (perhaps in response to a local TV station's news story) emailed me with the following inquiry last week:

Matt,

I had a teacher make the following argument against SBG and I would like your thoughts so I can be as prepared as possible...

They said that some of the more prestigious schools of higher learning are not accepting students grades that went through a SBG system as accurate because of the opportunities to reassess. I believe the example he cited was the Naval Academy.   He indicated that a student was told they would need to attend the U of I for a year to prove themselves before their application would be considered.

Have you heard of this craziness?

Thanks,
[Name]
Here was my response:
It is good to hear from you.  I had not heard about the Naval Academy or similar examples.  Here are a few things that may be worth sharing with this teacher and others as it comes up.
  • Our high school transcript has not changed, therefore unless college/university admissions offices treat our students just as they have prior to standards-based grading (in other words, the information teachers use to generate a grade for a class has changed to more accurate reflect learning, however a letter grade still exists and is reported)
  • We know that some students who are homeschooled do not receive letter grades, however they are admitted to colleges and universities across the country based on their evidence of learning such as academic portfolios, ACT or SAT scores, etc.  
In summary, I cannot believe this Naval Academy example is true.  The college admissions representatives and administrators I've talked with over the years readily admit the rigor or grades varies from school to school and that the changes we've made in our district will not negatively impact our students. 
What insights do YOU have for this "craziness?" 
---
Update: 
Thank you, Brad Latzke for pointing out the Hanover Research Council’s Study on 
Standards-Based Grading and College Admissions