Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Democrats block Smarter Balanced

State Senate Democrats announced last night that they would block the Smarter Balanced Assessments in order to ensure the availability of adequate state supplemental school aid for years to come. This clip from the press conference is really incredible. That’s the kind of party that can start winning statewide elections again.
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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

This dog won’t hunt

I came across this from a PowerPoint on Smarter Balanced’s item design (from page 29):



Call me crazy, but I think you can dog someone to take a run with you and then go for a swim and later doll yourself up. In other words, four of the five words can be used as both verbs and nouns, but the kids are supposed to mark the “correct” answer. (There is no indication that the question was coupled with any passage that actually used the words, and even if it had been, that’s not reflected in the wording of the question.)

Questions like this, apparently, are what will give us “incredible precision in identifying skills that students have mastered,” which is why we should pay top dollar for Smarter Balanced. I feel sorry for the teacher whose job evaluation depends on her students’ scores on this kind of test. I feel sorry for the kids, too.

The question reminded me of Tom Hoffman’s post describing a hopelessly written Pearson test question. As Hoffman wrote:
Not only can the teacher not easily ignore these exercises, there is tangible risk in teaching students to question or critique them too closely, as this would be likely to lead to students answering questions “incorrectly” on standardized tests.
So the lesson is “Don’t critique the test too closely.” Brought to you by Smarter Balanced.
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And also a unicorn

Here’s an email from the Iowa Association of School Boards’ “email campaign,” uncritically passing along the state task force’s recommendation of the Smarter Balanced tests and linking to the task force’s very incomplete “cost analysis.” The tag line at the bottom reads:
Brought to you by the joint efforts of Iowa Association of School Boards, School Administrators of Iowa, Iowa Area Education Agencies, Iowa State Education Association, the Rural Schools Advocates of Iowa, and the Urban Education Network of Iowa in support of adequate and timely school funding.
Reminder: Saying “I want adequate school funding AND the Smarter Balanced Assessments AND a pony” is not actually a way of supporting adequate school funding. With friends like that, school funding doesn’t need enemies.
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Foregone conclusion

Here’s a little-reported story about the state assessment task force’s process. To evaluate different possible assessments, the task force created a rubric, asked vendors to respond to a request for information, then planned to score the responses. What happened, though, surprised them: No vendor submitted the Smarter Balanced Assessments for review. Of the proposals that were submitted, the Next Generation Iowa Assessments received by far the highest score. The other proposals received sufficiently low scores that the task force eliminated them from consideration.

At that point, the Next Generation Iowa Assessments became the only proposal under consideration. From the point of view of the task force, that was a problem that had to be solved. At the time, Iowa was still a member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium; in becoming a member, the state had agreed to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

The task force decided to issue another Request for Information and “to reach out to specific vendors to ask them to submit the Smarter Balanced Assessments for our review.” (Details here.) Lo and behold, a vendor submitted the Smarter Balanced Assessments for review.

Soon afterward, the state decided to withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Consortium, as a way of “respecting the Assessment Task Force’s independence and ensuring an impartial process.” A few months later, the task force recommended that the state adopt the Smarter Balanced tests.

If it had been the Iowa Testing Programs that had failed to submit a proposal in response to the Request for Information, would the task force have issued a second request? Would it have “reached out” to ask for a submission of the Next Generation Iowa Assessments for review? Or was the task force determined from the outset to recommend Smarter Balanced?
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The end of Everyday Math?

Am hearing through this new social media thing called “Facebook” that our school district has decided to abandon Everyday Math in favor of either EnVision Math (Pearson) or Math Expressions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I don’t have strong opinions about what math curriculum is best, though I know I have readers who are fans of Singapore Math. All I know is that Everyday Math caused a lot of anguish in my household, and I won’t be sorry to see it go.

Here’s a blurb from the website for EnVision Math:
Daily Problem-Based Interactive Math Learning followed by Visual Learning strategies deepen conceptual understanding by making meaningful connections for students and delivering strong, sequential visual/verbal connections through the Visual Learning Bridge in every lesson. Ongoing Diagnosis & Intervention and daily Data-Driven Differentiation ensure that enVisionMATH gives every student the opportunity to succeed.
I have no idea what the merits of the program are, but I can’t say I find that language confidence-inspiring. I do wish someone would do a study of language like that. Does it really persuade anyone on its own literal terms, or does it just fulfill some kind of expectation that edu-products will be accompanied by reassuring-sounding buzzwords? Or is it just there to make the eyes glaze over and disarm the reader’s critical faculties?

If Pearson’s going to get all visual-verbal-twenty-first-century on us, at least they could practice what they preach. Wouldn’t something like this achieve basically the same effect?

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Hell freezes over

Never mind that other post. I decided I needed to get myself some twenty-first century skills. Stay tuned for my Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, Kik, and Yik Yak accounts.

The link probably won’t work. I’m already perplexed by the whole thing. Twitter seems downright elegant by comparison. Hopefully Facebook’s creepy data-harvesting will enable people to find me without my help.
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Monday, March 30, 2015

“A system of quick, informal tests—some lasting just a few minutes”

The Gazette ran a guest opinion piece this weekend by Mary Ellen Miller, a member of our State Board of Education and also a member of the state assessment task force, arguing that the state should adopt the Smarter Balanced tests. Miller makes some, ahem, interesting claims about Smarter Balanced.

First, Miller describes Smarter Balanced as a “a system of quick, informal tests — some lasting only a few minutes,” and that this “approach to assessment doesn’t take time away from instruction.” In fact, though there may be short practice materials included, the actual tests are between 7 and 8.5 hours long.

The task force report itself implied that schools would also want to purchase additional interim assessments—at additional cost—that would occur several times throughout the year. (See the chart on page 21.) So judge for yourself whether the tests will take time away from instruction.

Second, Miller asserts that “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.” Miller states this as fact, not opinion, but it’s simply false. The state surveyed bandwidth, but did not survey computer hardware (as the task force acknowledged here). Anyone reading Miller’s piece would be misled about that basic fact. The Gazette should run a correction.

As for Miller’s assertion that 99% of districts have adequate bandwidth, remember that this is from the task force that thinks a school can give a 7.5-hour-long test to 600 students on just 30 computers. So you can see why they would say that bandwidth is sufficient.

Yet Miller claims that it’s opponents of Smarter Balanced who are misleading people. Her piece is just more evidence that the task force was determined to recommend Smarter Balanced no matter what their “inquiry” found.

Karen Woltman, the task force member who dissented from recommending Smarter Balanced, responds to Miller’s piece (with characteristic diplomacy) here.
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Sunday, March 29, 2015

We don’t have to choose between Hoover and Hoover East (but if we did . . .)

Some have argued that the district can’t afford to keep Hoover School open and still open a new school in the Windsor Ridge area (currently known as “Hoover East”). As a result, the argument goes, Hoover has to close so Windsor Ridge can have its school. This argument is wrong both factually and normatively.

First, there is no reason to think that the district can’t afford both schools. The cost of keeping Hoover open even after opening Hoover East is about $191,000 annually. (See this post.) No one has demonstrated that $191,000—which is about one-tenth of one percent of the district’s budget—is the difference between solvency and insolvency. If we have to start closing schools to reap such relatively small savings, we’ve got much bigger things to worry about than Hoover East. If we can afford to open Hoover East, we can afford to keep Hoover open, too. (We can argue over names later.)

There’s also no reason to think we can’t afford to build Hoover East if Hoover stays open. It’s true that keeping Hoover open means we don’t need to build as much new capacity elsewhere, but the greatest opportunities for cutting costs from the plan are by canceling some of the additions to existing schools. Horace Mann and Longfellow, for example, could still get their renovations, air conditioning, and multi-purpose rooms without adding 330 new seats to those schools (and 330 more kids being dropped off in the morning).

Moreover, it’s reasonable to think that there will be more development and growing enrollment on the far east side, so you can see building a school there as a sensible investment, even if it’s relatively inefficient in the short term. The areas around Mann and Longfellow are already densely populated and are not likely to grow significantly, so it makes little sense to put additions there.

So yes, Hoover East and Hoover can co-exist. But if the district were forced to choose, should it sacrifice Hoover for Hoover East? No. First, if operating expenses were so tight that we had to choose between them, it would make little sense to choose the much more expensive option. The district estimates that opening Hoover East will add $500,000 to our annual operating expenses. Keeping Hoover open will cost less than half of that. Moreover, Hoover East is likely to be underfilled when it first opens (as Borlaug was and as Alexander will be for years to come).

Even setting aside cost arguments, there are compelling fairness arguments. There is no reason why Windsor Ridge’s desires should be filled at the expense of some other neighborhood’s. Closing Hoover to open Hoover East would be a reverse-Robin-Hood transfer. The Hoover area is economically diverse and includes very affordable neighborhoods; in the one-third of Hoover that lies right across the street from the school, the median home value in 2013 was $137,000. Windsor Ridge is a significantly wealthier neighborhood. It would be simply wrong to take the school from the mixed-and-moderate-income neighborhood so the wealthier neighborhood can have it. It would also be one more factor that could turn voters against the eventual bond that is crucial to completing the facilities plan. In a district that has been struggling with equity issues, it would be a great step backward.

I’m always a little surprised when people argue that Hoover should be sacrificed so their own favorite project can move forward. For one thing, it’s an awfully unsympathetic stance to take. Second, it’s effectively an admission that the new project is fiscally precarious; the listener may just decide that it’s the new project that needs to be cut. It would make a lot more sense to recognize that we can preserve our neighborhood schools and still pursue new projects, too.
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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Closing Hoover: Cost far outweighs benefit

When the school board voted to close Hoover Elementary, the board members didn’t articulate a clear reason for the closure. To some extent that’s still true, but over time the reasons seemed to come down to two. First, closure advocates argued that the district needed to close an elementary school to save operational expenses. Second, they argued that City High needs the Hoover land. I don’t think either reason stands up to scrutiny; in this post, I’ll focus on operational expenses, and in another post I’ll talk about the City High argument.

Before we talk about the cost of keeping Hoover open, it’s important to understand that closing Hoover costs a lot of money. If the district tears down Hoover, which can hold over 300 students, it will have to build that many new seats somewhere else. For example, while closing Hoover, the district also plans to build 330 seats of new capacity on Horace Mann and Longfellow schools, which will apparently cost somewhere in the neighborhood of ten million dollars. That’s money we wouldn’t have to spend if we kept Hoover open.

But keeping Hoover open does mean that we’ll incur annual operating costs. By combining three schools into two—which is essentially what the district would be doing by closing Hoover while expanding Mann and Longfellow—we can achieve some savings in operating costs, since, for example, we might be able to pay only two principals instead of three. But you quickly run into limits on what you can save this way: the great majority of operating costs are to pay teachers, and the students will still need teachers. Currently, Hoover has two full classrooms in each grade; there’s no reason to think that we could cut the number of classroom teachers simply by moving all the students to other schools.

So how much could be saved annually in operating costs if Hoover closes? Michael Tilley looked closely at the numbers and arrived at an estimate of $191,000. If anything, the real number might be lower, since Tilley did not factor in any busing costs. (One small corner of Hoover’s attendance area is not within two miles of any other school, and thus would be entitled under state law to busing, though it’s not clear to what degree that would affect total busing costs, or whether there would be other busing costs in addition.) If you doubt Tilley’s estimate, take a look at this (only slightly out-of-date) chart and see how you can squeeze much more than $191,000 out of closing Hoover School. (See pages 19 and 20.)

That’s just over 0.1% of the district’s annual expenditures. Of course any amount of money is important, but $191,000 is strikingly small compared with the roughly ten million dollar cost of replacing Hoover’s capacity elsewhere. Yes, I know, construction costs come out of a different “pot” of money than operating costs do. But that doesn’t mean it’s smart to spend ten million in construction costs to reap an annual savings of $191,000.

By comparison: this week the board voted not to cut discretionary bus routes, even though it would have saved $849,000 in annual operating expenses. The board (reasonably) decided that discretionary busing is important. Keeping neighborhood schools open is important too—and, as it turns out, doesn’t cost much.

Moreover, even if $191,000 were worth closing an elementary school for, there would be no reason to single out Hoover for closure. Hoover is larger than several other schools (which means it would cost more to replace its lost capacity) and is relatively efficient in its operating costs. In fact, the additions that the district is building onto Twain and Shimek bring them up to roughly the capacity that Hoover has now, which must mean that the district sees that as a workable size. Lincoln and Hills will be smaller than Hoover even after they receive their additions. None of these schools need to close.

Closing a school is a big deal. You don’t do it just to shave a tenth of a percentage point off your annual expenses, especially if it means borrowing ten million dollars for new construction. And if the district can’t resist that small annual savings, why would it stop at one school? It could save comparable amounts (or more) by closing other elementaries, until we’re left with only big 500-kid schools. If you eat that chip, it’s going to be real hard not to eat the next one, and the one after that. Is that what anyone wants?
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Don’t bet against Hoover School

Another odd-numbered year, another school board election. As this September’s board election approaches, I’ll be one of the people continuing to question the wisdom of the current plan to close Hoover Elementary in 2019 as part of the district’s long-term facilities plan. I’ll be posting more soon to re-examine some of the arguments for and against the closure. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d write this quick, admittedly horse-race-style post about the prospects for reversing the closure. In short, if I were a betting person, I wouldn’t bet against Hoover staying open in the long run, for these reasons:

  • Of the six board members who supported closing Hoover, only three now remain on the board. All three of those seats are up for election this year. It’s not clear whether any of those three board members will run for re-election. (I’m counting incumbent Marla Swesey as pro-closure; though she switched her vote on it at the last minute, she later made it clear that she supports the closure and is against revisiting the decision.)

  • In the last board election, the one incumbent who supported the closure was defeated. The two top vote-getters supported keeping Hoover open, and 65% of the total votes cast went to pro-Hoover candidates.

  • Every time the district has surveyed the public about the possibility of school closings—whether in the district’s randomized phone survey or in the multiple community workshops during the facilities plan process—the result has been roughly two-to-one opposition to closings.

  • The Save Hoover group, through its petition and yard sign efforts, now has a list of nearly a thousand identified supporters of keeping Hoover open. That’s not only a sign of public support, but a great organizing tool as Save Hoover approaches the election season.

  • Voters in other parts of the district have good reason to make common cause with Hoover. No matter how you slice it, closing Hoover costs a lot of money. The district will have to spend millions to build new capacity—for example, by building additions to existing schools—to accommodate the students who currently go to Hoover. That money could just as easily be used to add seats in parts of the district that have real capacity needs. (More on this point in future posts.) Moreover, voters in other attendance areas are likely to wonder whether the logic behind closing Hoover will lead the district to close other elementaries, too.

  • Looming over the facilities plan is the eventual need to ask the voters for a $100+ million dollar bond, which would need 60% voter approval to pass. The district just can’t afford to alienate a large bloc of voters going into that bond vote.

Like on a lot of issues, what you hear from school officials and administrators about Hoover is very different from what you hear from ordinary voters. There are definitely people who would like you to think that the Hoover decision is set in stone, but that’s the kind of bravado that can evaporate overnight when election results come in. I think there’s a good chance it will.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Costs? What costs?

An illustrator I am not, but you get the idea.

I’ve written before about how mystifying it is that the president of Iowa’s teachers’ union, Tammy Wawro, who has continually advocated for a 4% or 6% increase in state school funding, would nonetheless support the proposal to adopt the Smarter Balanced standardized tests, which are so costly that they will gut state school aid increases for years to come. Now it turns out that Wawro will be one of the three presenters of the proposal to the legislature tomorrow. Does Wawro feel any responsibility for the school budget cuts that will occur as a result of adopting Smarter Balanced, or is she just in complete denial? How is she serving the interests of the state’s teachers or students by advocating for very expensive tests that can only be funded by diverting money from staffing and school programming?

Another presenter will be the superintendent of the Waterloo schools, Jane Lindaman. Lindaman, too, claims to support higher increases in state school aid. Will she identify the tax increases that should occur to enable the state to increase school aid while also buying these expensive tests? Will she discuss what cuts she expects to make in her own district to pay the bill for Smarter Balanced? Or are we all just going to pretend that adopting Smarter Balanced has nothing to do with future supplemental aid?
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Friday, March 13, 2015

Legislature Considers Massive Cuts to High School Football

I couldn’t resist that post title, since apparently cuts to instructional programs don’t grab anyone’s attention. But if the legislature adopts the enormously expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests, the cuts will have to happen somewhere. Last year our district cut seventh grade football, in addition to making cuts in orchestra and foreign language instruction and elsewhere. This year, even more cuts are on the way. Next year, when the Smarter Balanced costs start rolling in, what will be left to cut?

Please, wise legislators, let us know what we should cut for the privilege of having these shiny new tests. Then I can re-title this post accordingly.

Of course, once we’ve replaced all the teachers with online MOOCs, I suppose administrators and coaches will be the only staff left. So maybe there’s nothing to worry about.
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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Let them hire nannies

Stories like this have been getting more attention. Critics have complained about the nanny state and the surveillance state and have mocked Americans’ fearfulness and inability to assess risk. I agree with a lot of those criticisms, but there’s another aspect to this kind of state intervention, too: It imposes the values (and neuroses) of the wealthy on people who can’t afford them. If kids aren’t allowed to walk to school on their own or to be latch-key kids after school, then we’ve effectively made it illegal for a huge swath of the public to have kids at all.
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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Do the Democrats mean what they say about increasing school aid?

I’m still mystified by the decision of the state teachers’ union president, Tammy Wawro, to support the task force’s recommendation that Iowa adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests. Judging from her Twitter feed, Wawro is an enthusiastic advocate of a 6% increase in supplemental school aid. Is she in complete denial about cause and effect? Adopt Smarter Balanced and you’ll kill any chance of decent supplemental aid for years. Does her left hand have any idea what her right hand is doing?

I’m beginning to worry that the state Democratic Party may be just as obtuse. Democratic legislators are united about the need for more supplemental aid. Yet how many have come out against Smarter Balanced?

At least eleven House Republicans are publicly against Smarter Balanced, which means it cannot pass without Democratic support. The single best thing the Democrats could do for future school aid is to vote this turkey down. If they don’t, all their noise about wanting a 6% increase is empty lip service.

My bad dream is that the Democrats declare a “win” by caving on Smarter Balanced in exchange for a slightly higher increase in aid for next year. They can’t be that lame, can they? Can they?
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Why is it wrong for a kid to cheat on a test?

This post by Justin McBrayer got me thinking about the moral status of children. The author criticizes the common practice of teaching students that opinions are unprovable “beliefs” while facts are provably “true”—thus, in effect, teaching them that there can be no moral truths. As a result, the author contends, students think a statement such as “It is wrong to cheat on a test” is merely an opinion, and cannot be “true.”

I agree with McBrayer at least to this extent: Whether there are “moral facts” is a philosophical question, open to debate, which means the school should not be teaching any view of it as a settled fact. Under the school’s own definition, the assertion that “value claims cannot be true” is itself an unprovable opinion, a “mere” belief. From the piece, though, it sounds like the author believes that the opposite “fact” should be taught as true. Either one looks like indoctrination to me.

The more interesting question, for me, is why we think it’s wrong for a kid to cheat on a test in school. I’m not saying it isn’t wrong, but I do think it matters how we get to that conclusion. It can’t be simply because the school prohibits it, right? Certainly the school can’t be the final arbiter of what is morally right and wrong. If it were, then the worst practices would become morally right just because a school requires them. (Was it morally wrong for a black child to try to attend a whites-only school?) So how should a child reach the conclusion that cheating is wrong?

Monday, March 2, 2015

You can do this in less than a minute

Things are happening very quickly in the legislature. The likely vehicle for adopting the Smarter Balanced tests is HSB 172. The bill currently contains general language about adopting assessments; on short notice, though, language specifying Smarter Balanced could be added. There is some opposition to Smarter Balanced in both parties, but it’s hard to gauge numbers.

If you’ve been following the issue on this blog, please consider taking a minute—you can do it in even less than a minute!—to email the legislators about this bill. All you need to do is cut and paste the following block of email addresses into the address field, say “Dear Legislators,” and simply ask that they vote against HSB 172 because Smarter Balanced is too expensive and because the full costs are unknown and likely to be enormous. Every little email helps.

ako-abdul-samad@legis.iowa.gov, chaz.allen@legis.iowa.gov, bill.anderson@legis.iowa.gov, marti.anderson@legis.iowa.gov, rob.bacon@legis.iowa.gov, chip.baltimore@legis.iowa.gov, clel.baudler@legis.iowa.gov, terry.baxter@legis.iowa.gov, bruce.bearinger@legis.iowa.gov, jerry.behn@legis.iowa.gov, liz.bennett@legis.iowa.gov, deborah.berry@legis.iowa.gov, rick.bertrand@legis.iowa.gov, brian.best@legis.iowa.gov, tony.bisignano@legis.iowa.gov, joe.bolkcom@legis.iowa.gov, tod.bowman@legis.iowa.gov, darrel.branhagen@legis.iowa.gov, chris.brase@legis.iowa.gov, michael.breitbach@legis.iowa.gov, timi.brown-powers@legis.iowa.gov, josh.byrnes@legis.iowa.gov, gary.carlson@legis.iowa.gov, jake.chapman@legis.iowa.gov, mark.chelgren@legis.iowa.gov, dennis.cohoon@legis.iowa.gov, mark.costello@legis.iowa.gov, thomas.courtney@legis.iowa.gov, peter.cownie@legis.iowa.gov, jeffdanielson@gmail.com, dave.dawson@legis.iowa.gov, dick.dearden@legis.iowa.gov, dave.deyoe@legis.iowa.gov, bill.dix@legis.iowa.gov, cecil.dolecheck@legis.iowa.gov, bill.dotzler@legis.iowa.gov, jack.drake@legis.iowa.gov, nancy.dunkel@legis.iowa.gov, robert.dvorsky@legis.iowa.gov, randy.feenstra@legis.iowa.gov, abby.finkenauer@legis.iowa.gov, dean.fisher@legis.iowa.gov, john.forbes@legis.iowa.gov, greg.forristall@legis.iowa.gov, joel.fry@legis.iowa.gov, ruthann.gaines@legis.iowa.gov, julian.garrett@legis.iowa.gov, mary.gaskill@legis.iowa.gov, tedd.gassman@legis.iowa.gov, pat.grassley@legis.iowa.gov, mike.gronstal@legis.iowa.gov, stan.gustafson@legis.iowa.gov, dennis.guth@legis.iowa.gov, chris.hagenow@legis.iowa.gov, chris.hall@legis.iowa.gov, curt.hanson@legis.iowa.gov, maryann.hanusa@legis.iowa.gov, rita.hart@legis.iowa.gov, greg.heartsill@legis.iowa.gov, dave.heaton@legis.iowa.gov, lisa.heddens@legis.iowa.gov, lee.hein@legis.iowa.gov, jake.highfill@legis.iowa.gov, rob.hogg@legis.iowa.gov, steven.holt@legis.iowa.gov, wally.horn@legis.iowa.gov, bruce.hunter@legis.iowa.gov, dan.huseman@legis.iowa.gov, charles.isenhart@legis.iowa.gov, david.jacoby@legis.iowa.gov, pam.jochum@legis.iowa.gov, david.johnson@legis.iowa.gov, megan.jones@legis.iowa.gov, ron.jorgensen@legis.iowa.gov, tim.kapucian@legis.iowa.gov, bobby.kaufmann@legis.iowa.gov, jerry.kearns@legis.iowa.gov, dan.kelley@legis.iowa.gov, kevin.kinney@legis.iowa.gov, jarad.klein@legis.iowa.gov, kevin.koester@legis.iowa.gov, john.kooiker@legis.iowa.gov, tim.kraayenbrink@legis.iowa.gov, bob.kressig@legis.iowa.gov, john.landon@legis.iowa.gov, vicki.lensing@legis.iowa.gov, jim.lykam@legis.iowa.gov, mary.mascher@legis.iowa.gov, liz.mathis@legis.iowa.gov, dave.maxwell@legis.iowa.gov, charlie.mcconkey@legis.iowa.gov, matt.mccoy@legis.iowa.gov, brian.meyer@legis.iowa.gov, helen.miller@legis.iowa.gov, linda.miller@legis.iowa.gov, norlin.mommsen@legis.iowa.gov, brian.moore@legis.iowa.gov, zach.nunn@legis.iowa.gov, jo.oldson@legis.iowa.gov, rick.olson@legis.iowa.gov, scott.ourth@legis.iowa.gov, kraig.paulsen@legis.iowa.gov, ross.paustian@legis.iowa.gov, janet.petersen@legis.iowa.gov, dawn.pettengill@legis.iowa.gov, todd.prichard@legis.iowa.gov, hcqbach@legis.iowa.gov, amanda.ragan@legis.iowa.gov, ken.rizer@legis.iowa.gov, walt.rogers@legis.iowa.gov, ken.rozenboom@legis.iowa.gov, patti.ruff@legis.iowa.gov, kirsten.running-marquardt@legis.iowa.gov, sandy.salmon@legis.iowa.gov, tom.sands@legis.iowa.gov, charles.schneider@legis.iowa.gov, brian.schoenjahn@legis.iowa.gov, jason.schultz@legis.iowa.gov, mark.segebart@legis.iowa.gov, joe.seng@legis.iowa.gov, mike.sexton@legis.iowa.gov, larry.sheets@legis.iowa.gov, tom.shipley@legis.iowa.gov, david.seick@legis.iowa.gov, amy.sinclair@legis.iowa.gov, mark.smith@legis.iowa.gov, roby.smith@legis.iowa.gov, steve.sodders@legis.iowa.gov, chuck.soderberg@legis.iowa.gov, art.staed@legis.iowa.gov, quentin.stanerson@legis.iowa.gov, sharon.steckman@legis.iowa.gov, sally.stutsman@legis.iowa.gov, rich.taylor@legis.iowa.gov, rob.taylor@legis.iowa.gov, todd.taylor@legis.iowa.gov, phyllis.thede@legis.iowa.gov, linda.upmeyer@legis.iowa.gov, guy.vander.linden@legis.iowa.gov, ralph.watts@legis.iowa.gov, beth.wessel-kroeschell@legis.iowa.gov, jack.whitver@legis.iowa.gov, mary.jo.wilhelm@legis.iowa.gov, john.wills@legis.iowa.gov, cindy.winckler@legis.iowa.gov, matt.windschitl@legis.iowa.gov, mary.wolfe@legis.iowa.gov, gary.worthan@legis.iowa.gov, brad.zaun@legis.iowa.gov, dan.zumbach@legis.iowa.gov

At this point, the best thing to do is email all of them as a group. If you’d like to pay special attention to your own legislators, you can identify them here.

The school budget you save may be your own.

UPDATE: I’ve corrected this post to reflect that the bill is now out of committee and before the legislature as a whole.
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Sunday, March 1, 2015

“What is the goal?”

The Gazette has a terrific, thorough editorial on the proposal to adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests. Its conclusion:
Even if Smarter Balanced provides more detailed student information, it is difficult to understand how our cash-strapped districts will be able to use such data to enhance student learning. . . .

Are Iowans being asked to choose between the cost of an administrator to oversee test score data-crunching or the cost of a classroom teacher? If so, we believe most Iowans will — and should — choose the teacher.

Likewise, if the choice before state lawmakers is to purchase unproven, expensive assessments with titillating bells and whistles or fully fund our school districts, we hope they choose to better fund our schools.
The editorial also raises smart questions about how exactly schools will use the test scores and whether the supposed gains are worth the huge increase in cost.

Read the whole thing..

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Priceless

Two members of our State Board of Education on the enormously expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests:
Finally, any new state test will come with a higher price tag because state assessments have evolved in technology and in function. However, Iowa will get much more for our money with the Smarter Balanced assessments. The testing process will be more efficient, results will come back faster, and — most important — teaching and learning will be enhanced. The assessments offer incredible precision in identifying skills that students have mastered, as well as those areas where they’re struggling, both for individual students and for groups of students. This kind of information is priceless to the teachers, school administrators, parents and elected school board leaders who are working hard for our students.
That’s the best they can do? “The testing process will be more efficient”—oh, but somehow twice as long. “The results will come back faster”—hooray, but who cares? “Teaching and learning will be enhanced”—didn’t our state board members learn about supporting their assertions with evidence? “Incredible precision”—well, they got the incredible part right. “This kind of information is priceless”—I guess that’s why no one can tell us how much it will cost.

Will someone please explain how these tests will actually be used to improve our kids’ education? Points for being concrete and specific!
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Saturday, February 14, 2015

The cost-free world of education policy

How did it become so common—almost universal—in education policy-making to refuse to acknowledge costs?

Some examples, large and small:
  • Our state assessment task force recommended adopting the Smarter Balanced standardized tests without even trying to assess how much the necessary technology would cost—even though that cost is almost certainly enormous. The report simply dwelled (unconvincingly) on all the supposed benefits of the new tests. So no need to assess costs!
  • Last year, the state enacted a teacher leadership program that takes experienced teachers out of the classroom to teach other teachers. Don’t worry, they reassured us, the state will pay for the costs. Then this year, it turns out that there’s not enough money for school aid because we spent so much on the teacher leadership program. Couldn’t have seen that coming.
  • At a recent school board meeting here, there was a lengthy discussion about setting academic goals for the district. The board decided to focus on raising reading and math scores. Don’t worry, the superintendent assured the board, focusing more on reading and math doesn’t mean we’ll focus less on other subjects. But how is that possible?
  • Two years ago, our district adopted specific numerical diversity goals for school attendance areas without any consideration of what it would take to meet those goals. After months and months of effort to produce new attendance area maps, when it became clear what it would take to meet the goals, the board backed off from the goals.
  • Six years ago, to get a grant, the district instituted PBIS, a behavior-modification program that emphasizes reflexive compliance with school rules. There was no consideration whatsoever of possible downsides—for example, of whether the program encouraged acquisitiveness, taught mindless obedience, or would have other unintended consequences. We can get grant money = let’s do it!
  • The biggie: Everywhere standardized test scores are held up as the measure of educational success. But even if higher test scores are a benefit, the scores tell us nothing about the associated costs. What was dropped from the curriculum to make those scores go up? Did the teaching techniques have harmful effects in other ways? Were the kids deprived of free play time or a decent lunch period to achieve those scores? Did the teaching achieve short-term success at the cost of creating a long-term aversion to the subject matter? Did the school have to start using behavioral control systems that teach authoritarian values? Did the kids also learn that learning is a joyless drudgery to be avoided as soon as they’re free of compulsion? The scores tell us nothing about those things. What good is that kind of partial information?
Everyone knows—literally everyone knows—that you cannot make an intelligent policy choice if you refuse to consider costs. Trying to make policy that way is the opposite of empirical, rigorous, and evidence-based. If you went to a doctor who practiced this kind of “empiricism,” you’d soon be dead from the unassessed side-effects of the treatment.

So why is it the default mode of school policy-making?
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It’s almost as if they’re unprincipled

Peter Greene has a good post about the inherent tension between wanting federal aid for schools but not wanting federal control of school policy.

But I really don’t understand the attitude of our federal lawmakers toward school policy. They intentionally designed No Child Left Behind so it wouldn’t directly regulate school policy; it just puts conditions on whether the states can get federal money. But the feds aren’t just “giving” that money to the states; first they’re collecting it from the people of those states through taxation. In other words, federal school policy occurs through putting conditions of the federal redistribution of wealth.

So our federal lawmakers seem to agree that school policy is a state issue that they shouldn’t regulate directly. And many of them would certainly oppose any suggestion that we should redistribute wealth. But apparently they’re fine with redistributing wealth when it enables them to control state issues? WTF?

If “redistribution” weren’t such a dirty word, maybe we could recognize that we’re already doing a lot of it, and that it would be a good thing even if it were unaccompanied by federal intrusions into state policy-making.
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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Those are big numbers

We have no idea how much money it will take to implement the Smarter Balanced standardized tests. That’s one of the main objections to going ahead with them. We can estimate how much it will cost to buy the actual tests—and that’s an enormous increase over what we’re currently spending—but we don’t have any estimates of what the necessary tech upgrades and support will cost. Any estimate I try to make here would have to be very rough, because the state has simply not done its homework about the cost.

But I’ll try anyway.

Start with the proposition that every one-percent increase in state school aid in Iowa means about $64 per student. (Derived from the numbers here.) Right now, the Governor is proposing an $80 per student increase for next year.

Then let’s look at what another state has done to prepare for using Smarter Balanced. California is a much bigger state than Iowa, but we can at least try to compare on a per-student basis. California approved $1.6 billion to “help” districts implement the Common Core, including the Smarter Balanced tests. California has about 6.2 million K-12 students. So that’s about $258 per student.

Now school districts in California are taking legal action to obtain an additional $1 billion that the Smarter Balanced tests are costing them. That’s another $161 per student. We’re up to $419 per student (though some portion of that is for other Common-Core-driven costs). And, as the California School Board Association advised the districts, “Remember that while the state has provided some one-time funding for SBA implementation, the expenses of SBA implementation will be ongoing.”

Is it a perfect comparison? No, because I’m a spare-time blogger Googling figures on the internet, as opposed to, say, a building full of state employees who are paid to figure things like this out.

But those are big numbers. More reason to think that if these tests are adopted, we can say goodbye to any hope of decent supplemental aid.
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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Superintendent, school board members want more cuts to school programs

What other conclusion can you reach from their utter silence on the proposal to spend uncounted millions on the Smarter Balanced standardized tests?

They know that the tests will cause cuts. If they didn’t know it already, their experience with the teacher leadership program would make it obvious. When the legislature debated the teacher leadership program last year, our superintendent and board members didn’t object. Then—surprise!—the teacher leadership program cost so much that there wasn’t enough left for supplemental aid. And now the district wants us all to lobby for more aid. Where were they when it mattered?

Now the same thing is happening again. The state wants an enormous increase in the amount spent on standardized testing. This will obviously divert money from supplemental aid; a 4% funding increase will be a pipe dream. You can have the tests or you can have decent supplemental aid; you can’t have both. How can our district ask us to lobby for more aid while not objecting at all to that huge expense, especially when a much cheaper alternative is available?

There’s only one way to interpret it: They want the cuts.

UPDATE 2/8/15: The Press-Citizen has an article this morning about the tests; the ICCSD curriculum director told the reporter that district leaders have “concern” about the tests. See the comments below. Still no indication that that concern is enough to make those leaders oppose adopting the tests, or that they are expressing any of those concerns to the legislators who will decide the issue. Still, it’s something. More please?
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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Do our district administrators support spending millions on Smarter Balanced standardized tests?

Parents at at least one elementary school in our district received an email from their Parent-Teacher Organization today designed to encourage them to advocate for the district’s legislative priorities. “This email contains legislative advocacy information to help you stay up to date with what is happening in Des Moines,” it said. “Superintendent Murley requested that this information be shared.”

The packet contained, among other things, two documents summarizing the state task force’s recommendation that the state adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced standardized tests. Neither document makes any reference to the dissent that accompanied the task force’s report and that raised serious concerns about the substantial and unquantified tech-readiness costs of adopting those tests. It also omitted this memo, written by our own David Dude for the Urban Education Network of Iowa, raising serious questions about tech readiness and cost. Finally, the packet included a statement about assessments, issued by the Iowa Association of School Boards, that sounds like it could have been cut and pasted from a standardized testing industry press release.

The district included all of those materials in the advocacy packet without comment on whether it wants people to support or oppose the new tests. Omitting any information about the dissenting opinion and any contrary views, though, could certainly come across as an endorsement. What are parents supposed to make of this information?

We have no idea whether the ICCSD has adequate technology to administer these tests. Judging from Dude’s memo, there’s a very good chance that it doesn’t and that the technology costs alone (not to mention the cost of the tests themselves) will be, in the dissent’s words, “significant and ongoing.” The Governor’s school funding proposal isn’t even enough to maintain our current level of spending. Where will the money for these tests come from? Where will it come from the next year, and the year after that? What is our district going to cut to pay for these tests?

It’s at moments like this when I wonder who our administrators work for.
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Monday, February 2, 2015

Parties can (and should) endorse in local elections

Prompted by a meeting he attended of the Black Voices Project and Sound Off, John Deeth has a post discussing the ways in which the Democratic Party can and cannot support candidates in local elections.

Local elections in Iowa are “non-partisan,” which just means that party endorsements do not appear on the ballot. Parties can still endorse candidates, of course, just like any group can. Deeth points out that the Democratic Party’s own rules make endorsements in local elections very hard to obtain, and he notes that changing the rules can be a years-long affair. (Deeth doesn’t discuss Republican Party rules, but I’ll assume they’re roughly the same.)

I left a comment saying that I wish parties would endorse—and change their rules to make it easier to do—because it’s a piece of information that at least some voters would be interested to know.

I also think that there’s a relatively easy work-around. Deeth is right that the Democratic party rules are cumbersome and hard to change. So do this: Create a new group called, say, the Johnson County Democratic Association. Provide in the group’s constitution or by-laws that every member of the Johnson County Democratic Central Committee gets one vote in this new group. Then provide much simplified procedures for endorsements in local elections. Set a biennial meeting to consider endorsements in local elections, set a reasonable quorum requirement, and then allow endorsements by majority vote at that meeting.

That’s all it would take. Of course, you couldn’t force the party to take part, and you’d need a critical mass for the system to work. But if local party committee members participated, voters would quickly come to understand that these are the equivalent of Democratic Party endorsements. And if party committee members decide they don’t want to take a stand in local elections, then at least they couldn’t blame party rules for their choice.

I don’t mean this as a cheeky thought experiment. I really believe that party endorsements can happen this easily if the parties are willing. I’d happily volunteer to draft something if anyone’s interested.
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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Would you hire these people to use technology to teach your kids?

“The future of assessments is online, but so is the future of teaching and learning,” the state assessment task force declared. But our state education department’s use of technology is not exactly an advertisement for technology’s power to inform and instruct.

Yesterday the state Department of Education posted a website designed to rate all of the state’s schools against one another on reading and math test scores. Set aside for the moment whether that’s a good idea; after all, our legislators made them do it. But the site is a mess.

Here’s an example of a graph designed to show the reading proficiency of the kids at my local elementary school:


What are we to make of this graph? How is the green line (labeled “Students Meeting Proficiency”) different from the blue bar (labeled “Meeting Proficiency”)? Why is the green line a line at all? Does the x axis have any meaning whatsoever? If not, what do the dots on the lines mean? And why are the little informational boxes positioned to block the view of the orange and blue bars? (It gets worse.)

Meanwhile, see if you can find your school’s dot on this graph.

Meanwhile, see if you can find Iowa City’s West High School in the site’s drop-down menu. Not so easy.

You might try to figure out what’s going on by clicking on the “More Information” drop-down menu, which has links for “Website Introduction,” “FAQ,” and “Report Definition.” None of the links work.

The site worked even less well on a mobile device than on a desktop.

These are the people who are going to tell us how to improve our kids’ education through technology? These are the people who are going to implement the proposed high-tech (and debacle-prone) Smarter Balanced standardized tests?

More on the rankings here.
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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Assess this


This is from New Jersey, but does anyone doubt that it would look the same in Iowa?

But our legislators do love to legislate. Because they know best!
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Monday, January 26, 2015

School board needs to stop daydreaming about restricting free speech

Here we go again. Our school board is talking yet again about community comment at board meetings. Tomorrow’s agenda includes a Powerpoint presentation (as if board meetings were not sleep-inducing enough already) about all the possible ways to restrict speech by members of the public at public meetings. The agenda item was requested by board member Marla Swesey.

Wasting more time on that topic would be bad enough, but the Powerpoint includes at least one slide that is outright misleading about what the First Amendment permits:


There is absolutely no legal basis for suggesting that the school board could restrict public speakers to “respectful” and “professional” comments. (See this series of posts.) If the board tries it, the district will get sued, will spend money needlessly on litigation, and will lose the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, this was the scene at the Eastside Elementary Orchestra concert at City High last week:


Yes, there were about a hundred people in the balcony, but the main floor, which would normally be crowded, was virtually empty, because fourth grade orchestra was eliminated in the budget cuts that hit the music program (and several other programs) last year. At least one member of the music staff went home after the concert and cried. Now we’re being warned that more cuts are on the way.

To spend one more minute, or risk even one dime, on trying to force community commenters to be more “respectful,” when the district has real problems like that to deal with, is a sign that board members are out of touch with the people they represent.

Kudos to board members Jeff McGinness and Tuyet Dorau, who voted against spending any more time on this futile enterprise. Great post by Mary Murphy on the First Amendment and community comment here..

Is there an optimal squeakiness?

One thing I’ve enjoyed about the book critic James Wood is the way he sometimes soft-pedals his own criticism and lets the book he’s reviewing indict itself. He’ll write a careful, restrained, and reasonable-sounding critique of a book, but then quote passages that reveal the book to be egregiously awful. You walk away from his review thinking not only that the book is terrible but that it’s very decent of Wood not to criticize it more harshly.

Something similar happens, I think, over at Karen W.’s blog. Karen does the unglamorous work of actually reading the education proposals that come out of the legislature and the state Department of Education (so we don’t have to). She comments in a matter-of-fact way and raises a few good questions, but she mostly lets that parade of horribles speak for itself.

For example, you can read her recent posts on the anti-bullying bill that would authorize schools to monitor kids’ social media accounts (and maybe even demand their passwords?), about the state’s plan to rank Iowa’s schools against one another, and about the state’s rules about what counts as “evidence” against its tourism-driven plan to require later school start dates. Even her more extended critiques are written in the calm voice of reason.

Not all bloggers (ahem) can muster that kind of restraint. Maybe that explains how she got invited to be on the state assessment task force, despite her previously skeptical stance toward the Smarter Balanced Assessments. (Or maybe our twenty-first century education officials didn’t realize she had a blog.) She ended up in a minority of one, but her dissent may find an audience with the legislature—certainly more of an audience than a simple blog post would have found.

Meanwhile, over at Parenting is Political, NorthTOmom describes a meeting she and her husband had with the vice principal of their daughters’ school about the amount of homework that the teachers were assigning. NorthTOmom methodically explained to the vice principal how the school was violating the district’s homework policy. When the vice principal refused to acknowledge the problem, NorthTOmom’s husband snapped, “There’s too much fucking homework!” Whether either approach will get results remains to be seen.

Michael Tilley, another local school blogger, recently wondered aloud what it takes to be effective at “squeaky wheel politics.” Seems like no one has solved that puzzle yet.
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Monday, January 19, 2015

School budget cuts will be (mostly) your legislators’ fault

It looks increasingly like we’re in for more school budget cuts. The Governor has proposed a paltry 1.25% increase in supplemental aid (formerly known as “allowable growth”) for next year. According to our superintendent, that’s well below what it will take to avoid another round of cuts like last year’s. If last year was any indication, the district will probably consider eliminating fifth grade orchestra and band and cutting foreign languages from junior high entirely, and that would only be the beginning.

The blame for this will fall mainly on the Governor and the state legislature. Not only are they failing to provide the needed funding, but they are funding education “reform” ideas like the “teacher leadership” program with money that otherwise could have been made available for supplemental aid. As Karen W. points out, supplemental aid for next year would have been almost 4% (and for the following year, 6%) if that “teacher leadership” money had been used for supplemental aid.

The Johnson County legislators who are complaining about the paltry supplemental aid increase all voted for the teacher leadership program. Did they not realize that it would come at the expense of other educational needs, like music, foreign languages, and smaller class sizes?

With higher supplemental aid, our school board could always have chosen to fund a teacher leadership program by cutting music and foreign languages, if they really thought it was worth it. Instead, our state legislators made that decision for us, without any consideration of the cuts it would cause.

Can’t you just feel your schools getting better?

And if the state Department of Education has its way, the legislature will divert even more funds next year to pay for the expensive new standardized tests that the public is clamoring for. What will be left to cut?

So I have some sympathy for our school board members, who will have to decide where to make the cuts. But I do hope they look closely at how the district is spending its money, and not just at the usual targets. One thing they could do is to take a close look at how much the district is spending on standardized tests, above and beyond those that are required by the state. Here is a chart showing all the standardized tests that our district uses (click to enlarge):


That’s a lot of testing—and so, I assume, a lot of money. Some of it may be required because of strings attached to various revenue sources. Maybe some of it is even so beneficial that it’s worth cutting music, languages, and staff for. Is anyone asking?
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Because surveillance and authoritarianism model kindness and respect

Just in time for Martin Luther King Day, the Governor has proposed to make our anti-bullying statute even more sweepingly authoritarian. As usual, the bill exhibits zero concern for whether schools might use it in ways that would violate students’ civil liberties.

If there had been a statute prohibiting people from creating a “hostile environment” by discussing someone’s “political belief,” can anyone doubt that King would have been prosecuted under it?

More in the comments here.
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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Quote for the day

Research documenting the validity of teacher judgment is, at present, shamefully hard to come by. About ten years ago, I read a brief monograph summarizing a few scattered studies that affirmed the validity of teacher judgment. The federally funded, master file on educational research called ERIC lists over 10,000 descriptors available for searching this comprehensive educational research database. As of 2001, “teacher judgment” did not even make list. The extent to which this obvious information asset is overlooked is one of the most appalling phenomena in education today.
George W. Elford, Beyond Standardized Testing: Better
Information for School Accountability, 2002

How could we ever live with less standardized testing? How would we ever know whether the kids were learning anything?
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How much are we paying for “face validity”?

I learned a new term this week: “face validity.” “Generally, face validity means that the test ‘looks like’ it will work, as opposed to ‘has been shown to work’.” “Some people use the term face validity only to refer to the validity of a test to observers who are not expert in testing methodologies.” Others have equated it with “pandering to stakeholders.”

The idea of “face validity” seems relevant to the state task force’s recommendation that we adopt the very expensive Smarter Balanced tests. The reason the Smarter Balanced tests cost so much more than the tests we’ve been using is that they use computer adaptive technology—varying the questions based on the student’s responses as the test goes along—and include time-consuming “performance tasks,” which purport to “require students to apply their learning to a real-world problem” (in a classroom, on a standardized test).

Not everyone agrees that expensive question types measure “higher-order thinking” and “real-world problem-solving” appreciably better than multiple-choice questions do. The task force’s dissenting member, Karen Woltman, examines some criticisms of performance task assessments here. Iowa City’s H.D. Hoover wrote twenty years ago that “People who think that multiple-choice tests measure trivial facts and performance assessments measure higher-order processes don’t know much about measurement.” I wonder how much has changed in the interim. His talk critiquing performance tasks is a great read.

One thing is true, though: “Performance tasks” and “computer-adaptivity” do sound so twenty-first century! Adding them to our tests enables the state to point to impressive-looking innovations in assessment. How much of the proposed eight-fold (or more) increase in cost is just paying for that kind of “face validity”?
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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Should ninth-graders be taking AP courses?

I’ve been wishing for years that our district would not teach the kids to chase unreflectively after praise rather than think for themselves about right and wrong. Now I’m starting to think that the district itself does the same thing.

It seems like I can’t go to a City High event or open a City High email without being reminded of the many accolades that City High has been awarded. Many of these are in the form of being named “one of America’s top high schools.” Everyone likes to hear nice things about their kids’ school, but I think most people know to take these assertions with a grain of salt. For one thing, test scores usually play a big role in the criteria, and our district’s high test scores are probably largely a function of its demographics, not its school policies. Are the district’s policies making those scores higher or lower than demographics alone would predict? Don’t ask. (And of course not everyone agrees that test scores are the ultimate measure of the quality of a person’s education.)

A little high school boosterism is to be expected. But if the district pursues certain policies just to chase this kind of accolade, then it can actually do some harm. One of the factors that goes into many of these “nation’s best” assertions is the number of students enrolled in AP courses. The number of AP sections has also been an ongoing bone of contention among people who are concerned about equity issues between City High and West High. These forces have created an incentive for the high schools to enroll as many students in AP courses as they can, regardless of whether those courses are in the best interests of the students enrolled.

I know a number of students who were invited to take AP U.S. History in the first semester of their freshman year in high school. I also know kids who accepted that invitation only to discover that the class was too hard and too much work, and who then dropped it. I’m open to the idea that there might be the rare ninth-grader who is genuinely driven to take a college-level U.S. History course, but that’s not what appears to be happening at our high school. I know at least six kids over the past two years who were invited to take the AP course as a freshman, and I don’t know all that many high school kids.

I have a lot of doubts about the value of AP courses. I would much rather the district craft its own honors-style courses than offer courses that are so single-mindedly focused on passing a standardized test created by some outside entity. Moreover, I don’t believe for a minute that an AP course is a substitute for a college course in the same subject matter. I wonder whether students are actually doing themselves a disservice to take an AP course rather than wait and take the college course (which the AP credit enables them to skip). For a couple of critiques of AP courses, see here and here.

But say what you want about high school juniors and seniors taking AP courses. Freshmen? If the course really is college-level, do freshmen belong in it? If the course is suitable for freshmen, is it really a substitute for college course work? My fear is that neither is true: that the courses are inappropriate for freshmen and overvalued, too.

Does the district’s pursuit of AP enrollments reflect thoughtful inquiry into the value and appropriateness of AP courses? Or it is just the result of chasing whatever the conventional wisdom values?
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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The money drain

As for which standardized tests the state should require, there’s one other point in favor of the Next Generation Iowa Assessments: not only are they much cheaper, but the money goes to an Iowa enterprise—the Iowa Testing Programs, which is part of the University of Iowa. The Smarter Balanced Consortium is not based in Iowa. Sure, the Smarter Balanced tests are likely to be administered by Pearson, which has lots of Iowa employees, but Pearson is a billion-dollar British multinational corporation. So who knows where the money ends up.

Of course my objections to the role of standardized testing in schools involve much more than cost, but money seems to be the language policy-makers speak, so . . . why the outsourcing?
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How to contact Iowa state legislators about education policy

The school district here is encouraging people to go to Des Moines on Tuesday, February 17 to talk up the district’s legislative priorities. Contact Chace Ramey (ramey.chace@iowacityschools.org) if you’re interested. (H/t Julie VanDyke.)

The district’s main priority is to convince the state to provide more supplemental state aid, which I’m all in favor of. While you’re up there, though, you might also speak up against the proposal to spend eight times as much (or more) on standardized testing. Low state aid + expensive new tests = more cuts to school programming.

I assume the district’s central administrators generate the list of the district’s legislative priorities. My sense is that school administrators think very differently about standardized testing than the average person does. I wish I knew what our board members thought about spending that much more on the tests.

You can also contact legislators by email. Here are some handy lists that you can cut and paste.

Senate education committee members:

hcqbach@gmail.com, brian.schoenjahn@legis.iowa.gov, amy.sinclair@legis.iowa.gov, jerry.behn@legis.iowa.gov, tod.bowman@legis.iowa.gov, robert.dvorsky@legis.iowa.gov, rita.hart@legis.iowa.gov, rob.hogg@legis.iowa.gov, david.johnson@legis.iowa.gov, kevin.kinney@legis.iowa.gov, tim.kraayenbrink@legis.iowa.gov, liz.mathis@legis.iowa.gov, jason.schultz@legis.iowa.gov, mary.jo.wilhelm@legis.iowa.gov, brad.zaun@legis.iowa.gov

House education committee members:

ron.jorgensen@legis.iowa.gov, tedd.gassman@legis.iowa.gov, patti.ruff@legis.iowa.gov, ako.abdul-samad@legis.iowa.gov, timi.brown-powers@legis.iowa.gov, josh.byrnes@legis.iowa.gov, dennis.cohoon@legis.iowa.gov, cecil.dolecheck@legis.iowa.gov, greg.forristall@legis.iowa.gov, joel.fry@legis.iowa.gov, ruthann.gaines@legis.iowa.gov, curt.hanson@legis.iowa.gov, maryann.hanusa@legis.iowa.gov, jake.highfill@legis.iowa.gov, kevin.koester@legis.iowa.gov, mary.mascher@legis.iowa.gov, norlin.mommsen@legis.iowa.gov, sandy.salmon@legis.iowa.gov, david.sieck@legis.iowa.gov, art.staed@legis.iowa.gov, quentin.stanerson@legis.iowa.gov, sharon.steckman@legis.iowa.gov, cindy.winckler@legis.iowa.gov

Johnson County delegation:

joe.bolkcom@legis.iowa.gov, robert.dvorsky@legis.iowa.gov, david.jacoby@legis.iowa.gov, vicki.lensing@legis.iowa.gov, mary.mascher@legis.iowa.gov, sally.stutsman@legis.iowa.gov, bobby.kaufmann@legis.iowa.gov, kevin.kinney@legis.iowa.gov

Full names of the Education Committee members are here. You can find your own representatives here.
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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Marilynne Robinson on standardized testing

Novelist and essayist (and Iowa Citian) Marilynne Robinson, in an interview for The Nation:
I hate the whole business about standardized tests, which implies that everyone should have basically the same aspirations and satisfy the same norms, and what could be more destructive, you know, of the sense of individual personality than that? The thing we know—the thing we know is that people are highly individuated, in terms of their gifts and their proclivities and their interests. We tell ourselves this all the time, but we don’t educate people in a way that makes it possible for them to respond to the fact that this is true. We don’t, you know. I mean it’s more and more regimentation. I think this is a terrible choice, and destructive, and I think that we can only do it because we tell ourselves this thing about our comparative failure as educators.
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What the school board’s not talking about

I hear this post got a mention (during public comment) at our local school board meeting tonight. I’m pretty mystified about why school board members throughout Iowa aren’t kicking and screaming about the proposed enormous increase in spending on standardized tests. When it’s time to make the cuts, those board members will be the first ones to take the heat. Is it just that they’re so used to thinking of themselves as state employees rather than elected representatives that they’re just waiting for the state to tell them what to do? Or maybe they think it’s all a good idea?

Related post here.
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What the Governor’s not talking about

So the Governor announced some pretty paltry supplemental school aid plans (formerly known as “allowable growth”) this afternoon. No reference to any kind of separate funding of expensive new standardized tests or the technology for them. I suppose that could be a sign that shifting to the Smarter Balanced Assessments is not a high priority for his administration. On the other hand, it could just be a sign that standardized tests, like the Common Core, are unpopular, so the Governor doesn’t want to talk about them. (They will be all the more unpopular if there is no designated funding for them.) I couldn’t help but notice that the state Department of Education initially announced the task force’s recommendation of the new tests in the middle of Election Day and then released the actual report on New Years’ Eve—not exactly trying to get people’s attention. If it’s such a great idea, why aren’t they proudly publicizing it?
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Standardized tests and your cat’s body mass index

Someone recently showed me this system for measuring a cat’s body mass index. (Don’t ask why.) The system requires you to measure your cat’s girth and lower hindlimb and then plug those measurements into a formula containing numbers that go to the fourth decimal place. Don’t divide by 0.7063; make sure it’s 0.7062.

Four decimal places! Of course, a measurement is only as precise as its least precise input. Call me crazy, but I think I’m a long way from being able to measure my cat’s “lower hindlimb” with enough accuracy to justify using multipliers that go to the fourth decimal place.

I thought of cat BMI when I read the state task force’s report recommending that Iowa adopt the expensive, computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessments:
Computer-adaptive testing, where the computer selects more or less difficult items based on the student’s answers to prior questions, is better able to pinpoint (more reliably and with fewer items than a fixed-form assessment) the performance of students performing at both high and low levels of performance (e.g., students who are gifted, students with disabilities). This means more precise scores for Iowa students.
Better able to pinpoint the performance of students performing at both high and low levels of performance! Now, maybe you’re different from me, and maybe one of your big worries is that the annual standardized tests aren’t pinpointing your child’s performance precisely enough. Even so, do you really believe that any standardized test, no matter how good, could “pinpoint” your child’s academic “performance”?

Schools are constantly reminding us that kids’ test scores can vary depending on how much they’ve slept and what they ate for breakfast. There’s even evidence that scores are affected by random events like variations in air pollution and whether there’s been a recent violent crime near the school. Then there’s the question of whether a student is really trying to do well on the tests, or just trying to get through them—a question that will only grow larger when the tests take twice as many hours. So how precisely can these tests possibly measure your child’s ability?

And never mind that the whole assessment regimen is built on the assumption that the Iowa Core standards are themselves some kind of precision instrument, and that “performance” will be maximized by preventing even small departures from their supreme wisdom. It must be reassuring for education officials to imagine such a well-oiled machine. But there’s no empirical basis for the assumption that the Common Core is precisely the best way to turn your child into a capable adult.

There’s no point in obsessing over precision at the top of the pyramid, when it’s non-precise assumptions from there on down.

The task force would have you believe that standardized tests are like thermometers, and that more money buys you more decimal places in the temperature reading. If you believe that, I’ve got a Feline Fitbit I’d like to sell you.
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