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New Testing Era Skews Purpose of Iowa Exams

Saturday: How are Iowa City schools doing on the ITBS tests? More important, how should they be doing? The Press-Citizen looks at scores for each school in the district.
Today: Are we using standardized tests the way they are supposed to be used? See what officials at the Iowa Testing Program have to say.
Monday: Standardized tests and No Child Left Behind are changing the way Iowa City schools are teaching our children. Is it for the better? What other changes are under way?

Each weekday, David Frisbie and his co-workers head to an upstairs office on the edge of downtown Iowa City to a job in which they have begrudgingly become key players in accountability measures central to the No Child Left Behind act.

For the past 20 years, Frisbie has co-authored the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Educational Development.

Students in all 50 states take the test each year, with some school districts reporting the scores to gauge progress under the federal legislation. Iowa City is one such school district, along with the 365 other school districts in the state.

"Our tests and our testing program was developed to support instruction," Frisbie said, explaining that the results can flag potential weaknesses in student learning or school curriculum. "There was never an accountability purpose attached to our test; that's never what we wanted them to be used for.

"Nonetheless that is how they're being used."

Since the mid-1990s, Chicago Public Schools have used the ITBS as a high-stakes test, meaning it factors into whether students pass third, sixth and eighth grade. That scenario is fairly unique for an ITBS exam.

Elsewhere, the added importance of test scores has led places like Washington state to create "criterion-referenced" exams tailored to their individual curriculum. Instead of being compared to other students, the test-taker is compared to a standard defined by educators, such as needing to get 8 of 10 correct or exceeding a certain percentile.

The Iowa Tests are "norm-referenced," known for comparing students to peer norms with percentile ranks. The test result gets compared to other test-takers. If nearly all others get fewer answers correct, you score in the 90th percentile. School officials in Washington now are pushing lawmakers to scratch the Iowa Tests from their required battery of yearly assessments.

"Initially, the federal government said (the Iowa tests) wouldn't pass muster (because of the focus on norms and general curriculum) so a lot of states went about the process of finding another test," said Kathi Slaughter, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education. "But we have such good trend information, we didn't want to abandon it."

No wonder. Iowa Tests date back more than 60 years, created and supported by Iowa Testing Programs. The program, led by Frisbie, along with Tim Ansley and Steve Dunbar, also has given birth to GED tests as well as major area employers NCS and ACT. Three years after No Child Left Behind became law, those who write the test warn of misuse of the information, but also find themselves on a bigger stage with a larger workload.

"I'm not a fan of No Child Left Behind, but it has its benefits. It's gotten people's attention," said Frisbie, also director of the Iowa Statewide Testing Program, which oversees student assessment in the state. "We can gauge how achievement is going ... but there is more to school than the Iowa Test can tell us."

Explaining the exam

All this didn't start with No Child Left Behind.

School boards across Iowa have used the tests to measure progress throughout the tests' 60-year-plus history. But measuring schools generally was done within the context of other assessment tests, grades and classroom performance. The Iowa Tests are widely known for percentile ranks and "norm" scores but also yield criterion-referenced information. One example is the "proficiency" levels used for No Child Left Behind reporting.Iowa's proficiency level is fixed at 40th percentile score from the year 2000. That benchmark will not change. By 2014, 100 percent of students must be above that mark to meet the federal standard. It's not impossible, said tests co-author Tim Ansley, who oversees the ITED, but it is improbable.

"You give a test to a child in school, and you say, 'Has this child mastered the objectives we have and how does this child compare to their peers,'" Ansley said. "We think of our test as one that looks at growth over years and areas of strengths and weaknesses. But one test can serve several purposes.

"It's more of an interpretation (in how a test gets scored) than it is the type of test itself."

What's different under No Child Left Behind is the "watch lists" and government threats that schools might lose money or local control if they don't measure up. With all the focus on the federal legislation, and therefore test scores, Iowa Tests officials have spent considerable time in Washington, D.C., explaining their exam and scoring procedures to policymakers. The feds listened, but that doesn't make a believer out of Gary Glenn, a fifth/sixth-grade teacher at Wood Elementary in southeast Iowa City.

His criticisms reflect school administrators' general concern with standardized tests.

"The whole test is a reading test ... we've got (fifth-grade) kids who read at the first-grade level, how are they expected to read a fifth-grade test?" Glenn asked. Plus, in the Iowa City district, students are tested on grade-level material upon the second month of entering that grade to accommodate turn-around time for results. "We give (students) all this responsibility. We give them all this trust, and then we knock it all down with one test."

Test writers have their own frustrations, not with the assessments but restrictions placed on reporting. While Frisbie and his colleagues have tests prepared in Bosnian, Vietnamese, German, Russian and other languages, and different language tests are allowed under No Child Left Behind, Iowa and other states require English-only testing for reporting purposes.

The Iowa City district is seeing an increase in Hispanic students but generally is not facing the language barriers seen in districts of similar size.

Too much, not enough

In Chicago, poor scores on the Iowa Tests have landed 167, or 35 percent, of the 470 elementaries subject to accountability standards on probation, said Daniel Bugeler, chief officer of research evaluation and accountability for the Chicago school system. As for students, "If we've got a student that is doing everything else right (grades, attendance, behavior), that can override their test score and the student can skip summer school and go on," Bugeler said. "It's one criteria of many; it's the initial criteria we look at."

Given the added importance of standardized test scores under No Child Left Behind, Chicago is not alone in adding consequences for students. But high-stakes testing has its downside, with allegations or proven cases of cheating involving teachers and administrators in Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and North Carolina, to name a few.

The Iowa Department of Education has received no reports of cheating, which officials credit to the absence of high stakes tests. Instead, when testing officials travel around to Iowa schools, they are repeatedly asked how to motivate older students to take the test seriously.

Listen to Evelyn Moncallo, a West High freshman.

"Most of the time, we don't look at the questions at all," said 14-year-old Evelyn Moncallo, a West High freshman. "We just fill in the circles and write notes the rest of the time. ... Usually, I just try on the subjects I'm good at."

Before West High, Moncallo attended Northwest Junior High along with Longfellow, Wood, Twain and Hills elementary schools. She likes to learn, and math and American studies are her favorite subjects.

"We just think (the standardized test) is a waste of time," Moncallo said.

'This new era we're in'

Washington state is on a different path.

"For us at the district level, the relevance of the Iowa Test has diminished and, quite frankly, we don't use the information for key decision-making anymore," said Tom Cone, assistant superintendent at the Vancouver School District in Washington. "The reality is that times have changed for us."

Cone earned his doctorate from UI in 1981 and worked on the Iowa Tests as a graduate assistant. He said the push for accountability under state-set standards raised the need for a test to measure progress on the identified curriculum and schedule, rather that of a national model like the Iowa Test. Washington came up with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which students must pass to graduate beginning in 2008.

"In times past we could be pretty general, and it just served the purpose fine," Cone said. The WASL not only is tailored to state standards but students also must show their work on math problems for credit. "The reality is that times have changed for us."

Additional assessment needs to be targeted, able to be repeated throughout the year and provide instant feedback, he said. The Iowa Test is none of those. But it is a unique outside look, test officials say. Plus, no test exactly aligns with a curriculum. Iowa Tests proponents in Washington say the reason more students are proficient on the WASL than ITBS is that their state-developed exam is weak.

"NCLB put new pressures on tests, that's for sure," ITED's Ansley said. "We still try to stress there are other uses for these tests scores ... there is still the greater good."

Meanwhile, Iowa Testing Programs is offering further augmentations, consultation in state and sometimes out of state, and the market is all but certainly headed toward computerized adaptive tests to allow more repetition with instant feedback.

"This new era we're in has changed the way we operate," Ansley said, "but only by increasing the services we offer."

Historical Development of Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa College of Education

1929: The Brain Derby (Iowa Academic Contest) begins Iowa Every-Pupil Tests (high school).
1935: Iowa Every-Pupil Elementary Tests (grades 6-8, three tests).
1940: Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (expanded to grades 3-5). Houghton-Mifflin becomes national publisher of ITBS.
1942: First Iowa Test of Educational Development Fall Testing Program (emphasis on general educational development).
1943: Science Research Associates becomes national publisher of ITED.
1945: GED tests developed for the armed forces institute using ITED materials.
1953: Formation of Measurement Research Corporation, later to become NCS (Information Systems).
1955: First scoring of the ITBS with Lindquist's electronic scoring machine invention.
1959: ACT established by Iowa Testing Programs and Measurement Research Corporation.
1968: Iowa Measurement Research Foundation established after the sale of MRC to Westinghouse Learning Corp.
2005: Iowa Testing Programs operates on an annual budget of $3.5 million with 22 permanent employees and six faculty who split their duties with the University of Iowa Department of Education. Chicago-based Riverside Publishing distributes the test outside of Iowa, but UI maintains the copyright.
Source: Iowa Testing Programs


Proficiency: Iowa's proficiency level is fixed at the 40th percentile score from the year 2000. That benchmark will not change. By 2014, all students are expected to score above that mark to meet the federal standard.

Percentile rank: A score that tells the percentage of students in a group that got lower raw scores on a test than the student did. For example, if your child scored a 96, that means he did better than 96 percent of the students in the group.

Criterion-referenced/Norm-referenced: These are different scoring interpretations. Think of criterion-referenced information as a "can-do" conclusion based on a set standard, such as proficiency. Norm-referenced information compares a student to other students, resulting in percentile ranks.

— Brian Sharp
Iowa City Press-Citizen





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