Wednesday, April 23, 2014

School budget cuts are only the beginning

This is an extended version of my guest opinion in the Press-Citizen today.

Families in the Iowa City area were disappointed to learn of the school district’s planned cuts to band, orchestra, foreign language and other programming because of a $3.6 million budget shortfall. Many have contacted state officials to urge them to increase funding for K-12 education. But the state is on the verge of making matters worse, not better—and causing more cuts—if it moves forward with its plan to adopt an expensive new regime of standardized tests.

When Iowa adopted its version of the Common Core standards, it also became part of a consortium of states that have pledged to adopt new Core-aligned standardized tests, called the Smarter Balanced Assessments. The legislature has not yet approved the Smarter Balanced tests, but it has required that Core-aligned tests be implemented by 2016 and has tripled the number of grades in which the tests would have to be given. These changes were adopted with bipartisan support.

The tests currently in use, the Iowa Assessments, cost about $3.50 per student to administer and are required in three grades. By conservative estimate, the new tests will cost at least $22.50 per student and will be required in nine grades. That means that the state is about to make districts spend at least nineteen times more than they are currently required to spend on standardized testing. (Because our district already tests in nine grades, it would have to spend over six times as much as it currently spends.)

And that’s just the cost of the tests themselves. Because the new tests are designed to be administered by computer, they would also require a substantial investment in new technology. They would also almost certainly require an ongoing increase in tech support staff.

The legislature also decided to require a science assessment in nine grades. The Smarter Balanced Assessments do not include a science component, so districts would have to pay for additional standardized tests to meet that requirement. Those tests could cost another $10 per student.

Where will all the money come from? If the state spends that much more on standardized testing—at the same time that the Governor is pushing tax relief—the funding can only come at the expense of other educational needs. To pay for all this gold-plated testing, the schools will have to make even more cuts like the ones we’re seeing now. Will French go the way of German? Will band and orchestra be cut from elementary school entirely? Will class sizes increase? Will teachers be laid off? What else will we have to sacrifice for the sake of all this testing?

So yes, people should contact their legislators and the Governor. But it’s not enough to ask for more education funding. We should demand that the state let us fund the kind of education we value, instead of imposing its own idea of test-driven education on our schools.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard protest after protest about the cuts to music, foreign language, and other programs. If the state chose not to implement expensive new standardized tests, would there be even a single complaint? How did our schools end up so far from what our community values?


Here’s some additional information that I couldn’t fit into the guest opinion:

There are several reasons to think that the Smarter Balanced Assessments will cost more than the $22.50 per student estimated by the consortium. First, that figure includes only the year-end “summative assessments,” not the optional additional tests the consortium offers, which could add another $5 per student. Second, the cost figures are only estimates; some of the administration and scoring services will have to be purchased from private vendors, who may well charge more than the consortium estimates. Third, paper-and-pencil versions of the test, which could be necessary if the technology is not ready, will cost an additional $10-12 per student.

One reason the Iowa Assessments are relatively inexpensive is that they are produced by the University of Iowa, which provides them to Iowa school districts at cost. Other states pay as much as $15 per student to use Iowa-created tests, but that’s still a significant savings over the cost of the Smarter Balanced tests.


The legislature may well appropriate funds to pay for new standardized tests, though it’s unlikely to cover all the associated expenses. But even if it does, that’s money that it could have used for other (more compelling) educational needs. If the state won’t give us the allowable growth that we need to pay for things like music and language classes, it will be because it has already spent the money on standardized tests.


There has been an interesting back-and-forth between the state Department of Education and the legislature on the Smarter Balanced tests. Under both Governors Culver and Branstad, the Department made a commitment to the Smarter Balanced consortium to adopt the tests. Meanwhile, though, the legislature decided that schools would have to continue using the Iowa Assessments until it decides otherwise. That put the Department in an awkward spot. The Department continued to push for the Smarter Balanced tests, but the legislature decided only that it would settle on some set of Core-aligned tests by 2016-17, and it created a task force to make a recommendation. The task force has not yet issued its report—but its members were all chosen by the Department.

The legislature did decide to triple the number of grades in which tests would be required, starting in 2016-17. The bill to create the assessment task force and to require testing in nine grades received bipartisan support, including the support of every legislator from Johnson County, including Senators Joe Bolkcom, Bob Dvorsky, and Sandra Greiner, and Representatives Dave Jacoby, Bobby Kaufmann, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, and Sally Stutsman.


The federal government, including the Obama Administration, also bears responsibility for this increase in testing. Iowa’s push for increased standardized testing was part of its attempt to receive federal Race to the Top funding, which incentivized exactly that approach. Alas, even though we adopted the Common Core standards and joined the Smarter Balanced consortium, we didn’t get the money.


Education in Iowa recently had a terrific post on just how little we know about Iowa’s readiness to shift to computer-based testing, including a discussion of testing debacles in other states that “ought to be keeping Iowa proponents of Smarter Balanced Assessments up at night.” An excerpt:
[The Department of Education] can’t ask the Iowa Legislature to appropriate funds for tech readiness if they don’t know what is needed, leaving schools to fund needed tech readiness upgrades out of existing school budgets that are already stretched thin. This might be much less of a concern for schools ahead of the curve tech wise, but ought to be a concern nonetheless. Diverting local funds from the classroom or needed facility maintenance or upgrades will hardly make the Common Core and the accompanying standardized assessments more popular.

Of course, there are also non-fiscal objections to the role standardized tests now play in our schools. Here are FairTest’s concerns about the Smarter Balanced Assessments.


Where does the money go? It’s hard to say exactly, because each state will do its own contracting with vendors for Smarter Balanced test administration and scoring.  But you can bet that Pearson stands a good chance of getting those contracts in Iowa.

Needless to say, standardized testing, together with all its associated “educational services,” is a major industry. Pearson’s North American Education division, for example, reported £536 million in operating profit in 2012—the equivalent of about $900 million.

Does anyone think that the Smarter Balanced Assessments—or for that matter, the Common Core standards—would have been adopted on such a wide scale if there weren’t millions of dollars to be made by for-profit testing companies like Pearson?


The same bill that increased the required testing also established a “teacher leadership” program that will take experienced teachers out of the classroom to spend more time mentoring junior teachers; it will begin in 2015. We have yet to see how this program will affect local budgeting decisions: will more programs become expendable, or will class sizes grow, when the most experienced teachers start mentoring other teachers instead of teaching kids? (The legislature did appropriate funds, but again, that could only make less money available for other needs.)


Notice that our district is already using the Iowa Assessments in three times more grades than it’s required to (not to mention all the other standardized tests it gives). Apparently that category of expense didn’t come up when the administration was making budget cuts.


The single best place to go for information about the status of standardized testing in Iowa, and of the Smarter Balanced Assessments in particular, is the Education in Iowa blog. Its posts on Smarter Balanced Assessments are here.


Source note: The current requirement that the Iowa Assessments be given in fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade is in Iowa Code section 256.7(21)(b) and (b)(1). The requirement that testing be given in third through eleventh grades as of 2016 appears in section 256.7(21)(b)(2), which also requires the science assessment.


Anonymous said...

Are these tests being field tested in Iowa City? If so, I want to opt my son out of any involvement.
Karen Nichols

Chris said...

Karen -- I don't believe that they are being tested in Iowa City. A (possibly incomplete) list of districts participating in the field testing is here.

Chris said...

In response to Jennifer Babcock's comment on the Press-Citizen post -- I agree that there are multiple causes for the budget shortfall. The state bears responsibility for what it allows the districts to spend, but the district still needs to spend the money wisely (to the extent that it has discretion over how to spend it, which it clearly does). The diffusion of responsibility and accompanying blame-shifting has been one of the more frustrating aspects of the budget problem.

I also think the school district should be kicking and screaming about some of the decisions that the state has made.

Anonymous said...

Public education is run by a criminal cabal of big government, big labor and big business. They want to manipulate you and your children for power and money. They don't care about children or teachers. Indoctrination of children into socialist ideas and immorality is a strategy for maintaining a permanent liberal majority of dependent slaves and low information voters.