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Iowa City officials wary of Branstad's test scores plan

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | FEBRUARY 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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Gov. Terry Branstad outlined some of his education benchmarks during a press conference in Des Moines Monday morning, and while local officials welcome his intense focus on education, they approach his use of test scores with caution.

“Looking at test scores as a single point [of comparison] is a disservice to the educational process and our kids,” said Tuyet Durau, an Iowa City School Board member. “We need to look beyond [test scores] and look at the individual growth the children are experiencing.”

She pointed to a specific program used by Mann Elementary in which binders are kept for students with their test-score history, so each teacher can help keep track of their progress. Overall, the district is pleased with the focus on student achievement, but emphasized it will take more then just teachers to help meet the goals.

“In order to reach and sustain superior levels of learning in math, we’ll need to work together,” Ann Feldman, assistant superintendent of the Iowa City School District, wrote in an email. “We must engage [and not alienate] teachers, university leaders, principals, community and school leaders, and parents in doing the hard work of creating action steps and holding ourselves accountable to our aim.”

Branstad’s goals focus on two benchmarks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. He would like to see fourth-graders test among the top-10 states nationally in reading and eighth-graders in math by 2019. In 2011, the most recent year available, fourth-graders were 29th nationally in reading, and eighth-graders were 25th in math.

“Iowa eventually will need to benchmark not only against No. 1 Massachusetts but against academic stars like Singapore, Canada, and Finland,” Branstad said in a press release.

The director of the Iowa Testing Programs, a research component in the University of Iowa College of Education that works on the Iowa Assessments, said the goals were “realistic” but noted that schools should continue to focus on individual student data versus statewide data, the type in Branstad’s proposals.

“Test scores have a very important use, and while they tend to be overused on the gross aggregate level they can help improve instruction if used correctly,” said Steve Dunbar, the director of the Iowa Testing Programs. “When used at the school level, they can provide a much more detailed analysis.”

The governor also wants to attract top students into teaching, noting on Monday that students currently interested in teaching in Iowa have lower ACT scores on average at 20.8 than other test-takers, who scored 22.2.

One UI official cautioned against solely focusing on test performance but said the College of Education is taking more selective standards into account during the admissions process, including raising the GPA requirement from 2.7 to 3.0 starting this semester.

“While I do believe in selectivity in who comes into the teaching profession, and I want to draw the best and brightest knowledge … they must have the right deposition,” said Susan Lagos-Lavenz, associate dean of the College of Education.

Lagos-Lavenz said she would like to see more focus on implementing the policies, which she feels is one of the lessons from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Branstad said his reforms, if passed, would be fully implemented by 2017 to 2018. But Lagos-Lavenz believes education reform will continue to be a pressing issue.

“Education is a fluid process, and I don’t think we will see a day when we’re not talking about reform in this field,” she said.


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