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 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!