ATF: State Board Member Miller Weighs In

State Board of Education member Mary Ellen Miller, who participated in the task force presentations to the Senate and House Education Committees earlier this month, has a guest column advocating the adoption of the Smarter Balanced assessments in The Gazette. The guest column is a response to the Gazette staff editorial SMARTER BALANCED: Recommended assessment for Iowa’s K-12 students carries a hefty price tag, and for what?

Miller describes the staff editorial as second guessing the task force recommendations, as if that is a bad or impermissible thing for the Gazette staff to do. The task force undertook our work at the request of the Iowa Legislature for the express purpose of making policy recommendations about statewide assessments. Anyone interested in our work, including staff at The Gazette (not that they need my permission or approval), can and should poke, prod, examine, question, and even second-guess our recommendations and process.

Miller also describes the staff editorial as misinformed. That seems like a pretty strong word for what appeared to me to be a pretty well-informed take on the assessment issue. Might I suggest “written from a different perspective than mine” or “written with different priorities in mind than mine”?

Miller describes the task force as having “spent more than a year studying options for an assessment system.” I think it would be more accurate to describe the task force as having studied summative (end of year) assessment options, one of which also included interim assessments and a digital library.

Miller describes the Smarter Balanced assessments more than an annual test but “a system of quick, informal tests–some lasting only a few minutes”, an “approach to assessment [that] doesn’t take time away from instruction, as The Gazette suggests.” I can only guess that Miller is referring to the formative assessments that are part of the Smarter Balanced digital library or the interim assessment blocks. However, summative Smarter Balanced assessments and the full-length interim assessments do take more time to administer than either the current Iowa Assessments or the proposed Next Generation Iowa Assessments and do not include required science assessments. It’s hard to see how these lengthier assessments (plus the additional, required science assessments) don’t take more time away from instruction unless 1) the Legislature adds time to the school year or 2) the kids take them during lunch or recess time.

Miller than states “[s]upporters of the status quo will use misleading cost estimates or technology concerns to argue against the Smarter Balanced assessments.”

I have addressed the difficulty of crafting a fair, apples to apples comparison of costs for Smarter Balanced assessments and the Next Generation Iowa Assessments in the previous blog post. I think it is more helpful to be upfront about assumptions used to create the cost estimates than to accuse others of being misleading. In any case, the task force was charged with recommending a summative assessment,* so I don’t think it is inherently misleading to focus on the summative assessment cost estimates only and to exclude the other assessment spending by districts. It is up to legislators to decide whether to choose an assessment or an assessment system.

As for the technology concerns, the most recent task force documents show a bandwidth survey of schools has been done but not a computer hardware survey. Readers may be interested in the UEN technology directors memo to the task force on statewide assessment technology costs and support.

*See the text of 256.7(21)(b)(2) and (3).