Montessori in Iowa

The Iowa State Board of Education is scheduled to consider an application from the American Montessori Society to be approved as an independent accrediting agency for Iowa nonpublic schools at 1:45 pm today.

The Department of Education has recommended that the Board approve the application and “grant AMS authority to accredit nonpublic schools in the state of Iowa.”

A Montessori presentation was made at the April 11th meeting of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. From the Board minutes (page 5, lines 8-12):

The board will further discuss Montessori programs, including practitioner preparation, licensing and nontraditional preparation options. There will also be future discussion about the possibility to adopt criteria for Montessori education program practitioner endorsements.

Montessori has been part of Iowa’s education landscape for over fifty years, with Montessori programs located in communities across the state from Council Bluffs to Davenport and Dubuque. Iowa has one public Montessori program, Des Moines Public Schools’ Cowles Montessori, which serves students in preschool through grade 8.

Computer Testing: A Few LInks

What could possibly go wrong with computer testing? EdWeek reports that Kansas has suspended statewide online testing due to denial of service attacks.

EdWeek also reports on problems with field testing at one Maryland high school, where problems included poorly written instructions, software problems, and tangled headphones.

Online exams and cheating: EdWeek reports on how some tech (cellphones!) make it easier to cheat while other tech makes cheating more difficult (“adaptive tests, secure browsers, and plagiarism-detecting software”).

Have comments or complaints about new Common Core tests, including PARCC and Smarter Balanced? There is a new website trying to generate a national conversation at

Smarter Balanced Assessments 26 [updated]

Tech readiness: what do we know about Iowa’s readiness for statewide computer-adaptive testing and does it matter?

There is not much information being made publicly available about Iowa’s tech readiness for statewide administration of computer-adaptive testing. Whether the lack of publicly available information is due to failure to collect the information, a failure of transparency, or some of each is not clear. If anyone can provide answers or more details, comments, as always, are welcome.

One reason information on tech readiness matters is that switching over to statewide, online assessments is a huge undertaking. Wyoming’s experience in 2010 ought to be keeping Iowa proponents of Smarter Balanced Assessments up at night. The short version: online testing went so poorly that the state superintendent of education was voted out of office, the vendor (Pearson) was sued, and the state returned to paper-and-pencil tests.

Other stories of problems with online testing aren’t hard to find. See “Minn. Computer Crash Halts State Math Test” or “Online Testing Suffers Setbacks in Multiple States” (detailing problems with online testing in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Oklahoma).

Conversely, Virginia apparently had few problems moving to online testing after spending 650 million dollars and taking six-years to roll it out. [Note that we are now less than one year out from the promised statewide use of the Smarter Balanced Assessments in Iowa.]

Planning for tech readiness obviously requires information about what you have now and what will be required for successful administration of the tests. To that end, PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments put together a Tech Readiness Tool to collect information on device indicators (meeting minimum or recommended requirements for testing), device to test-taker indicators, network indicators, and staff and personnel indicators to assist in planning for technology upgrades, test scheduling, and training for test administrators and tech support staff. In addition, SBAC offers a tech readiness calculator to help schools determine how many days of testing they will need to plan for given the number of students, computers, hours of computer availability, and bandwidth.

After completing a tech readiness assessment, Oklahoma determined they could not adequately prepare and chose to opt out of PARCC exams.

If Iowa has used the SBAC Tech Readiness Tool, that information and the results have not been made public.

Iowa is making public efforts focused on improving bandwidth capacity throughout the state. See comments by Director Brad Buck starting at 29:33 on #IAedchat on March 23rd (video below–other comments on Smarter Balanced Assessment field tests and the work of the Assessment Task Force start at 24:21–note also comments from Director Buck that he is unaware of efforts to determine whether Iowa schools have enough computers for testing).

Iowa conducted a SchoolSpeedTest earlier this year to gather information to “plan for future increases in access and support our planning for the next-generation assessments to be launched in 2014-15.”

The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council is also working on this issue and two broadband bills were filed this session (HF 2329 “Connect Every Iowan Act” and SF 2324 “Statewide Broadband Expansion Act“). While both of these bills still appear to be in committee (House Ways and Means and Senate Appropriations, respectively), I believe bills in either of these committees are not subject to funnel deadlines and could still be taken up this session. However, it seems unlikely that major infrastructure upgrades, if needed to improve access and capacity, would all be completed prior to next March (more on this later).

Of course, tech readiness is more complicated than just bandwidth. Schools must have enough computers, meeting minimum or recommended requirements, to test students during the testing window and schools must have adequate wiring to run all those computers (see “rural district decided to charge all its wheeled carts of laptop computers overnight, overloading the electrical circuits and shutting off heat in all its buildings.“) In addition, as noted in the stories linked above, vendor server capacity matters on the one end of the connection, and district server/network capacity matters on the other end of the connection. The following illustration is courtesy of AEA 267:

Bandwidth Factors

The 2013 Condition of Education Report (p. 109) shows the following information for bandwidth available in Iowa schools in 2012-13:

Bandwidth 1213

The STEM Advisory Council is recommending a short term goal of .5Mb per student, with a long term goal of 1 Mb per student. Iowa schools appear to be falling well short of these goals–150 schools have 10 Mb or less of bandwidth, with seven having no access to the internet at all–but if we look at bandwidth requirements for streaming video (again courtesy of AEA 267), it is easy to understand the STEM Advisory Council recommendations.

Bandwidth Video

For schools with low bandwidth capacity, instructional use of the internet will have to be limited or eliminated during testing. Of course, for schools working with limited hardware, instructional use of computers might have to be limited or eliminated during testing anyway.

Why else does it matter?

We have already seen pushback on the Common Core in Iowa. Imagine how popular it will be if there are major problems with the Common Core assessment rollout. A high profile, comprehensive tech readiness plan might be reassuring (see New Hampshire’s website, for example) and minimize the likelihood of major problems occuring.

In addition, the DE 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.

A paper-and-pencil option will be offered until 2016-17 for school not currently tech ready, but this option raises comparability and equity issues.

“With an adaptive test, you see right away what questions a kid needs,” said Lauress L. Wise, a principal scientist with the Monterey, Calif.-based Human Resources Research Organization, which has performed quality assurance and evaluation on testing systems such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. “With paper and pencil, you’d have to offer a lot more questions—a longer test—to make it comparable to that. If you can’t do that, you won’t be measuring the end points [of achievement] as well.”

[SBAC executive director Joe] Willhoft acknowledged that the paper version of the Smarter Balanced test will be “less precise, with a larger measurement error” at those points in the spectrum.

These assessments will be used to compare Iowa schools to each other, with high stakes attached to the outcomes. As a matter of basic fairness, all Iowa students should be taking these assessments under essentially the same conditions.

Update: How much variability in testing conditions can occur before it affects the validity and reliability of the results? Rick Hess asks three questions in this regard that he says haven’t been answered:

How will we compare the results of students who take the assessment using a variety of different devices?  There will be variability in screen sizes, keyboards, and potentially in the visual display. Some students will be using certain kinds of devices for the first time. And many states will be administering tests to some number of students using paper and pencil in 2015, and likely beyond. What do we know about how to account for all this variation in order to produce valid, reliable results?

While there are always questions about consistency of testing conditions, these get super-sized when the stakes climb and variation is non-random.  Well, limited access to the required devices means that all the usual questions get accentuated.  How will PARCC and SBAC account for vastly different testing conditions?  Depending on testing infrastructure, some schools will be able to assess students in their regular classroom while other schools will have to shuffle students around the building, to schools across town, or to independent testing centers.  How much does this matter?  What do we know about how to track and then account for the impact of such factors on outcomes?

How will we account for the fact that we’re apparently looking at testing windows that will stretch over four or more weeks?  Students in schools which administer the test towards the end of the testing window will have had a lot more instructional time than students in schools which test at the beginning.   The variation could be 10 percent of the instructional year, or more.  How is this going to be tracked and accounted for when comparing teachers, schools, programs, and vendors?

Field test side note: SBAC has released estimated times to complete the assessments based on pilot testing, with the caveat that the tests are not timed, so students may take more or less time to complete them. Smarter Balanced Assessments cover just mathematics and English language arts, so the time to administer the science assessments required by Iowa law would be in addition to these estimated times:

SBAC estimated times

Smarter Balanced Assessments 25

Is Iowa moving to Smarter Balanced Assessments?

The above search term brought someone to the blog today. The answer is maybe, but Iowa has not yet adopted the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

Here is a recap of where Iowa stands with regard to Smarter Balanced Assessments:

Governor Branstad, State Board of Education President Rosie Hussey, and DE Director Jason Glass signed off on making Iowa an SBAC governing state in June 2011. The letter requesting the change in status updated the SBAC MOU originally signed by Governor Chet Culver, interim DE Director Kevin Fangman, and Rosie Hussey in June 2010. The MOU contains the following language with regard to the Smarter Balanced Assessments: “The purpose of [the SBAC MOU] is to . . . (h) Bind each State in the Consortium to every statement and assurance made in the application . . . ” and “Each State that is a member of the Consortium in 2014-2015 also agrees to the following: . . . Fully implement statewide the Consortium summative assessment in grades 3-8 and high school for both mathematics and English language arts no later than the 2014-2015 school year, . . . .”

However, 2012 brought SF 2284, Division II of which fixed the Iowa Assessments as the statewide assessments for Iowa.  The state board may submit recommendations for modifying the assessment, but legislative action will be required to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments.  [SF2284 is found in Chapter 1119 of the 2012 Acts and Joint Resolutions, which begins on page 434.  Division II of SF2284 is on page 435.]

2013 brought further changes with HF 215, Division V of which modified the assessment requirements as follows:  Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, districts will be required to administer assessments to all students enrolled in grades three through eleven.  The assessments shall be administered during the last quarter of the school year, must be aligned with the Iowa common core standards, must accurately describe student achievement and growth for accountability purposes, and must measure student progress toward college or career readiness.

HF 215 also directed the director of the DE to establish an assessment task force to review and make recommendations for a statewide assessment of student progress.  The task force recommendations are due by January 1, 2015. The assessment task force meeting dates, agendas, notes, and membership are available at the DE website. Meetings of the task force are open to the public.

This session, HF 2141, a bill that would have required the director of the DE to submit a request for Iowa to exit the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, failed to advance out of subcommittee.

Caffeinated Thoughts reports that Rep. Jorgensen (R-Woodbury), chair of the House Education Committee, indicated that the Legislature will address whether or not to adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments next session, after the assessment task force has submitted recommendations. Of course, as long as the Iowa Legislature is in session, it would still be possible to take action on the issue.

Meanwhile, the DE has moved forward with participation in the Smarter Balanced Assessment field tests. The DE requested a field test flexibility waiver, which was approved in part in February.  The waiver was approved on the condition that the DE will implement eight assurances, including ensuring notification of parents whose children attend schools that will be participating in the field tests and that “pending action by the Iowa legislature,” the DE will administer the new assessments to all students in the grades required to be tested during the 2014-15 school year.

After a one-week delay, the Smarter Balanced Assessment field test is scheduled to begin March 25th.

On Facebook, Iowans for Local Control has the following list of Iowa school districts participating in the Smarter Balanced Assessment field tests. Note that the Iowa DE does not appear to have released an official list, and Iowans for Local Control would like to be notified of any errors or omissions.

  • Alden CSD
  • Anthon-Oto CSD
  • Atlantic CSD
  • Bellevue CSD
  • Bettendorf CSD
  • Danville CSD
  • Davis County CSD
  • Denison CSD
  • Dike-New Hartford CSD
  • Essex CSD
  • Gilmore City-Bradgate CSD
  • Hampton-Dumont CSD
  • IKM-Manning CSD
  • Iowa Falls CSD
  • Le Mars CSD
  • Linn-Mar CSD
  • Lone Tree CSD
  • Maple Valley CSD
  • Morning Sun CSD
  • Muscatine CSD
  • North Mahaska CSD
  • Schleswig CSD
  • Sioux City CSD
  • Southeast Polk CSD
  • Starmont CSD
  • Tipton CSD
  • Tri-County CSD
  • Wapello CSD
  • Waterloo CSD

So that’s where we stand. The executive branch appears to moving forward with implementing the Smarter Balanced Assessments, but the Iowa Assessments remain the statewide assessments for accountability purposes until the Iowa Legislature takes action to change that.

Legislative Update 3/18 [updated]

Update: Huffington Post reports that twenty high school students were suspended for retweeting gossip about a high school teacher. Is this where we are headed in Iowa? Do we want students to lose days of instructional time as punishment for off-campus speech? What other tweets about teachers or administrators could be punished under a policy like this?

Last Friday was the second funnel deadline. The House Democrats and House Republicans have produced two slightly different lists of education bills that survived the second funnel.

Both of the anti-bullying bills, HF 2409 and SF 2318, survived the funnel.

SF 2318, as amended by S-5060 [adopted by voice vote] and S-5073 [adopted by voice vote], passed [26-19] in the Senate today. S-5060, described during debate as “largely technical,” made a number of changes, including changing the requirement that training be incorporated into individual teacher and administrator professional development plans to school district or attendance center professional development plans, changing “research-based” to “research- and outcome-based”, and changing “safety and security” to strike “and security”. S-5060 also removed the 3.0 additional F.T.E. in the DE and grants the DE emergency rule-making authority to implement the new sections 256.100 Office of support and analysis for safe schools and 256.101 School climate improvement grant program. S-5073 creates an exemption to the varsity interscholastic athletic contest and competition ineligibility for students open enrolling into another district during the first ninety days of enrollment if the resident district determines that the student was subject to a founded incident of bullying or harassment as defined in 280.28 while attending school in the resident district.

Three other attempts to amend the bill failed. S-5074 [22-25] on quick inspection appears to be a strike and replace amendment to insert the language of the House bill. S-5075 and S-5076 [both ruled out of order] would have added training on free speech to training requirements. These two amendments were determined to be “unduly broad.”

Video of the Senate debate on Monday and Tuesday of this bill is available at the Iowa Legislature website.

Lobbyists for StudentsFirst and the Urban Education Network of Iowa are registered for the Senate bill, ACLU-IA is registered against (read about their concerns here), with ISEA, IASB, SAI, DE, and the AEAs registered as undecided.

The debate isn’t overly long, and had some interesting moments.

One concern with anti-bullying bills is that the definition of bullying can become overly broad. Consider the apparent definition of cyberbullying or online bullying from an article in today’s Globe and Mail, Teachers are low on the list students turn to when cyberbullied (H/T @SheilaSpeaking): “said or done something mean or cruel to someone online” or “that someone has said or done something mean or cruel to them online that made them feel badly.”

Sen. Hogg (D-Linn) recognized this over-broadness issue at one point, stating “lots of bad behavior isn’t bullying or harassment.” Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a recognition that some bad behavior–mean, hurtful, or offensive speech–may, nonetheless, be constitutionally-protected. This is particularly concerning with regard to the expansion of school authority off school grounds; there are some permissible limitations on student speech at school, but it doesn’t follow that those same limitations can properly be placed on student speech away from school.

It is nice to think that everyone understands and respects the First Amendment implications and limitations in policing speech, but discussion around a local school board’s proposed public comment policy (see, for example, Chris’s post here) suggests this isn’t the case.

In arguing against an amendment that would have made investigation of alleged incidents of bullying or harassment occurring off school grounds discretionary, Sen. Hogg argued that granting immunity for failure to act created the wrong incentive, and stated something along the lines that the bill is giving them the tools, and expects them to act.

Missing from the debate were concerns that the bill might encourage school surveillance of student social media use or recognition that students can take steps–without school administrator involvement–to protect themselves on social media (see, for example, Twitter’s online abuse page and suggestions for helping targets of online abuse). In addition, schools can educate students about bullying issues and prevention without having expanded authority to investigate and discipline students for off-campus incidents.

Interestingly, as Iowa moves to make the DE and schools primarily responsible for bullying prevention and response efforts, the Globe and Mail reports that:

[The study] found that teachers are far down the list of people that students consider turning to for help when faced with online harassment. Parents come first, followed by other trusted adults and friends. In some cases, students said they would rather talk face to face with their own bullies, or simply ignore the problem and hope it resolves itself, than ask teachers to get involved. The researchers believe that highly punitive school policies are a factor.

Kindergarten (and Career) Readiness Rat Race

I am conflicted about the push for universal preschool. My kids had a terrific experience with Montessori preschool, however, it seems unlikely that universal Montessori preschool is in the offing and I find it difficult to disagree with the sentiment Chris expresses here:

I can’t say that I remember much from my Kindergarten days beyond Elmer’s paste and safety scissors, but it was hardly an academic pressure cooker. So the concern about Kindergarten readiness has me wondering, just how ready could kids really need to be for the first year of formal schooling (beyond the obvious of having had a fifth birthday prior to September 15 of the year)?

A local district website offers some clues to Kindergarten expectations. There are the Iowa Core standards for Kindergarten language arts and mathematics and the district Student Learning Standards for Kindergarten language arts, mathematics, and social studies.

Once you get past the bizarre Kindergarten employability skills–honestly, would we really be all that less “globally competitive” if Iowa five-year-olds spent their Kindergarten days learning to share, take turns, stand in line, and stay on task rather than learning to “use different perspectives to increase innovation and the quality of work”, “use interpersonal skills to influence and guide others to a goal,” “use time efficiently to manage workload”, and “deliver quality job performance on time”?–it isn’t at all clear to me that kids should require much in the way of preparation to meet expectations by the end of their Kindergarten year.

The language arts standards are a bit unhelpful in some places. Note to standards writers: it doesn’t really illuminate anything to say that Kindergarten students are expected to be able to read “Kindergarten level” books or know and apply “grade-level” phonics.

In any case, most of the expectations seem pretty reasonable, though I can’t tell exactly how high the decoding expectations are. So, I suppose there is some possibility that expectations for decoding skills are higher than they used to be.

Interestingly, it just now strikes me that there are no expectations that children will learn to write their names, learn about colors, or develop any particular motor skills (cutting with scissors, holding pencils correctly for writing)–I hope I just missed them.

Again with mathematics, the standards look pretty reasonable: count to 100 by ones and by tens; write numbers from 0 to 20; compare groups of objects (greater than, less than, equal to); add and subtract within ten, with fluency expected for addition and subtraction within five; understand that the numbers 11-19 are made up of ten and some number of units; measuring and comparing objects (longer/shorter, heavier/lighter); sorting objects; and some knowledge of 2-D and 3-D shapes.

My working hypothesis is that there isn’t so much a problem of absolute readiness as there is a problem with relative readiness. Some kids arrive the first day of Kindergarten with all or many of these expectations mastered, while others have not. I suppose we could try to resolve that problem by making mastery of the Kindergarten curriculum, in a preschool setting, a prerequisite of “Kindergarten readiness”–though what the purpose of Kindergarten would be at that point, I couldn’t guess. Alternatively, I suppose we could place children prepared to benefit from first grade work in first grade, quit comparing the rest of them to each other, and stop putting increasingly higher economic competitiveness academic expectations on younger and younger children.