End of Course Exams

End of course exams are in the news again this week.  I had forgotten the price tag for the development of the new exams.  Two million dollars.  Why do we need to spend two million dollars to develop end of course exams when the Iowa Testing Programs at the University of Iowa and ACT have already developed end of course exams (aligned to Common Core standards)?  Is there any reason to think that current Iowa Assessments and ACT tests don’t provide enough information for parents and students to know how the student is progressing?

The Brief on Branstad-Reynolds Administration Recommendations for World-Class Schools may hint at the answer:

The purpose of these assessments [high school end-of-course exams] is to more tightly align the standards in the Iowa Core with what is actually taught in these high school subjects. In addition, these assessments could take the place of any summative assessments given by classroom teachers now, effectively making this a trade-off and not adding more assessments for high school students.

The purpose of these exams can’t possibly be to more tightly align the Iowa Core with classroom practices.  The Model Core (forerunner to the current Iowa Core) “proposes nothing less than a paradigm shift for Iowa high schools and their approach to educating our youth.” (page 7)  From page 8 of the Model Core:

The international economy and the U.S. job market aren’t the only significant areas of change. Students have changed, too. Today’s high schooler is a product of the Net Generation, a life of iPods, instant messaging, cell phones, Xbox games, and Google. Multi-tasking is a given. But those changes don’t always extend to learning and teaching styles. Too many students tune out once inside the classroom. Dropouts include some of our best and brightest who simply aren’t engaged by the same old teaching styles. Schools that successfully captivate this information-age mindset with higher-level learning find student motivation explodes, and not just among the top performers.

The message then is clear: Students shouldn’t be expected to power down at the schoolhouse door.

All this means dramatic change for our schools and our curriculum – both in content and in delivery styles.

The Model Core Curriculum Project Lead Team eagerly embraced its mission to identify essential content and skills for science, literacy, and math. The detailed recommendations that follow will empower Iowa high school students to find greater success – in education, in the international workplace, in their communities and in their personal lives. It also will empower the state’s educators to become important agents of change.

The purpose of these end of course exams must be to enforce compliance with the Iowa Core in the classroom.  That being said, the drafters of the Model Core noted that:

“When parents see these core curriculums, they may be surprised by what is expected of all students. It certainly will look and feel different from what parents faced when they  were in high school.”  (page 19)

I think many parents would be surprised (and perhaps disappointed) by how far the Model Core/Iowa Core is removed from traditional content and instructional methods, and by what passes for “rigor” in high school.  There is a focus on group work, interdisciplinary projects, multimedia presentations, and “real world” applications.  The drafters disparage traditional high school science instruction and have added “important high school mathematics topics” such as vertex-edge graphs (Euler and Hamilton paths and circuits, the traveling salesman problem), the mathematics of social decision making, and the mathematics of information processing and the internet, that are neither traditional high school mathematics topics nor “important enough” to be included in the Common Core.  Whether this will be two million dollars well spent, will depend on whether you agree with the Department’s philosophy and vision for K-12 education and whether you think the Iowa Core (and the actual test questions) represents the best of what could be offered to Iowa high school students.  Otherwise, you might prefer that we spend the money on something else and allow teachers to maintain control over their own final exams.