Iowa State Board of Ed Decides It Can Select New Assessment

SmarterBalanced513x276I took the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to sit in on part of the Iowa State Board of Education’s June retreat.  I was particularly interested in the conversation about the Smarter Balanced Assessments, and out of thin air the Iowa State Board of Education decided it had the authority to change Iowa’s assessment from the Iowa Assessments to Smarter Balanced.

A brief recap on how we got here.

In 2010 Iowa, under former Governor Chet Culver, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (who then had the state of Washington as a fiscal agent) as part of their Race to the Top application.  Governor Terry Branstad renewed that MOU requesting that Iowa become a governing state.

State law (Iowa Code 256.7, subsection 28) at the time codified the use of the Iowa Assessments (formerly called the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills): “The core content standards shall be identical to the core content standards included in Iowa’s approved 2006 standards and assessment system under Tit. I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. § 6301 et seq., as amended by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110. “

In subsection 26b of the same chapter it states the Board can only recommend assessments to school districts, “The state board shall also recommend quality assessments to school districts and accredited nonpublic schools to measure the core curriculum.”

Smarter Balanced began pilot testing in Iowa between February 20 through May 10, 2013.  Some schools volunteered, other schools were scientifically selected.  Smarter Balanced then rolled out a practice test in May of 2013 that the Iowa Department of Education plugged.

The State Legislature in 2013 created the Assessment Task Force in HF 215 that was passed into law.  They also changed the language related to changing assessments.  Iowa Code 256.7, subsection 21b reads:

1) Annually, the department shall report state data for each indicator in the condition of education report. Rules adopted pursuant to this subsection shall specify that the approved district-wide assessment of student progress administered for purposes of the core academic indicators shall be the assessment utilized by school districts statewide in the school year beginning July 1, 2011, or a successor assessment administered by the same assessment provider.

(2) Notwithstanding subparagraph (1), for the school year beginning July 1, 2016, and each succeeding school year, the rules shall provide that all students enrolled in school districts in grades three through eleven shall be administered an assessment during the last quarter of the school year that at a minimum assesses the core academic indicators identified in this paragraph “b”; is aligned with the Iowa common core standards in both content and rigor; accurately describes student achievement and growth for purposes of the school, the school district, and state accountability systems; and provides valid, reliable, and fair measures of student progress toward college or career readiness.

So the allowed assessment is the Iowa Assessments or a successor assessment developed by the Iowa Testing Programs (part of the University of Iowa’s College of Education).  The Iowa Testing Programs developed the Next Generation Iowa Assessments, but the Assessment Task Force recommended Smarter Balanced over the Next Generation Iowa Assessments.

In July 2014 Governor Terry Branstad withdrew Iowa from the consortium after declining to sign a new memorandum of understanding with the consortia.  He, along with Iowa Department of EducationDirector Dr. Brad Buck, sent the consortium a letter stating’s Iowa’s intent to withdraw.

The Iowa State Board of Education passed a resolution endorsing Smarter Balanced Assessments in February.  It should be noted that in their draft resolution they requested authority to select the state assessment.

During the 2015 Iowa Legislative session a shell bill for assessments was filed by State Representative Ron Jorgensen (R-Sioux City), the House Education Committee Chair, and then was later withdrawn.

Now we come to the Board’s June Retreat.  The Des Moines Register had a concise summary of the Iowa Department of Education’s “analysis.”

David Tilly, deputy director of the Department of Education, told board members Thursday that he reviewed Iowa law, Board of Education minutes and other documents dating back to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as part of the analysis.

In 2003, minutes show that the Board of Education had the authority in selecting the Iowa exams. That changed in 2012, when legislation gave lawmakers the authority. Then in 2014, legislation passed that Tilly says allows the authority to revert back to the board.

“It appears that unless the legislator exercises that authority, the authority reverts back to the state board,” Tilly said.

The 2014 law also says the tests should be implemented for the 2016-17 school year. And Tilly reiterated that school districts need time to implement the new exams, such as training staff and ensuring computers and technology are in place to support computer testing.

“The clock is ticking,” Miller said.

“I firmly believe the Iowa Code gives the state board the authority to make the selection,” Board member Mary Ellen Miller said after the presentation.

Well gee, apparently Miller and Tilley believe the state board has this authority because they wish it so.

Not so fast.

First, the law did not change from 2013.  There was no change in the code in 2014 related to assessments so I don’t know what Tilly is talking about.  Second, no where does the Iowa Code say authority has reverted back to the board.  The only authority they have is to approve a successor assessment that has been developed by Iowa Testing Programs.

Karen Woltman who served on the Iowa Assessment Task Force and was the only no vote on Smarter Balanced wrote, “The most obvious question is why would a deputy director conduct a legal analysis rather than assigning the task to one of the DE staff attorneys?”

I found that to be interesting as well.  Also, Miller mentioned they consulted with Jorgensen and State Senator Herman Quirmbach (D-Ames) (the Senate Education Committee Chair) who both affirmed to them that the board has the authority to do this.

Hmm…. perhaps they needed to ask their fellow committee members before giving that advice.  Let me refer back to the draft resolution for Smarter Balanced written by some Iowa Department of Education bureaucrat.  Apparently when that was written it was pretty clear that they didn’t have the authority.  The minutes from that meeting in February don’t reflect any discussion about why the language requesting authority to select the state assessment was dropped other than Brad Buck requested it.

It should be noted at this time it was pretty clear Smarter Balanced was not going to have the votes to pass.  There was huge concern about the cost of the assessment.  So Jorgensen pulls his bill and then suddenly the board has authority to change the assessment.

Woltman continued in her piece on this development:

Please see this blogpost for a more complete explanation, but it isn’t at all clear that the Legislature intended subparagraph (2) to operate as a sunset provision as to parts, really, of subparagraph (1), as no one seems to be arguing that DE’s annual reporting requirement will also be sunset by paragraph (2).

There is no factual conflict between the subparagraphs as the Iowa Testing Programs (the assessment provider referenced in subparagraph (1)) is in fact developing a successor assessment for the 2016-2017 school year that meets the minimum legislative requirements enumerated in subparagraph (2). In which case, the Legislature would not need to take affirmative action unless the Legislature wanted to adopt an assessment from a different assessment provider (the Smarter Balanced assessments, for example) or wanted to grant the State Board the authority to select the statewide assessment.

Miller in the Register piece mentioned concerns about school districts being prepared with the new technology.  Woltmann counters, “note that Assessment Task Force materials provided to the Legislature have minimized technology readiness concerns (see here, here, here, or here).”  Woltmann also refers to the Cedar Rapids Gazzette where Miller downplays opposition from groups like ours in an op/ed.

Supporters of the status quo will use misleading cost estimates or technology concerns to argue against the Smarter Balanced assessments. In reality, these cost estimates don’t include the dollars our school districts are already spending on additional tests to get the ongoing feedback that Smarter Balanced’s assessment package would provide. Additionally, results from a survey of district readiness shows 99 percent of our public schools meet the minimum bandwidth requirements and have adequate computer resources to administer the Smarter Balanced assessments.

So is the rush really necessary?  Nope.  But hey let’s rush this through the administrative rules process before the full legislature meets again.  Watch for these rules to drop, but in the meantime you may want to chat up the Legislature’s Joint Administrative Rules Review Committee.

Also it should be noted that Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s members are dwindling.  Three states have ongoing lawsuits including a Missouri judge who barred the state from making payments to Smarter Balanced.  The Missouri Legislature just dumped it.  Maine just dumped it.  Wisconsin is dumping it.  The Smarter Balanced roll out has been an unmitigated disaster.

Smarter Balanced is a sinking ship and an unelected board with its made-up authority is going to rush us toward an assessment that will jack up assessment costs for Iowa’s schools with this new mandate.

I don’t think so.  The Board needs to be put in its place.  What hubris!

About Shane Vander Hart

Shane Vander Hart founded Iowans for Local Control in 2012 which later merged with Iowa RestorEd. Shane also is the founder and editor-in-chief of Caffeinated Thoughts and the founder and president of 4:15 Communications, LLC, a social media & communications consulting/management firm.  You can connect with Shane on Facebook or follow him on Twitter and Google +.

Leave a Reply