Category Archives: task forces

Compelling Stories

The Iowa Department of Education released draft Social Studies standards last month. Written by the Social Studies Standards Writing Team between January and June 2016, the draft standards are in the process of being reviewed by the Social Studies Standards Review Team, which met for the first time on November 8th.

The draft standards are self-described as “a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.” Bold or not, the draft standards offer an impoverished vision of social studies, driven by skills rather than content knowledge in the disciplines of history, geography, economics, and government.

Skills driven standards can’t go out of fashion fast enough, in my opinion. Content knowledge is power. The power to think, to create, to apply, to evaluate, to understand, and the power to acquire more knowledge within a particular discipline. [See David Didau, for example, on the impossibility of separating skills from knowledge.]

These standards fail to effectively outline much in the way of content knowledge students should acquire (more on this in a bit), but, also, having turned away from content driven standards, the Social Studies Studies Writing Team has apparently determined that the purpose of social studies education in Iowa is to develop the “civic competence” of students instead of building their content knowledge.

From the introduction of the draft standards:

Preparing students for the 21st century cannot be accomplished without a strong emphasis on the social studies. The founders of our country emphasized that the vitality and security of a democracy depends upon the education and willingness of its citizens to participate actively in society. This level of participation requires civic competence. In other words, it is imperative that our future generations gain an understanding of the core concepts of social studies. Life in the United States within our democratic system is constantly changing which creates varying social circumstances. As a result, citizens need to adapt to such changes in order to sustain vital democratic traditions. Meeting this need is the mission of the social studies.

As we work to carry on the ideals of the founders, we are compelled to revisit our fundamental beliefs and institutions and to construct new social contexts and relationships. The Iowa Core in Social Studies reflects the belief that the informed social studies student comprehends and applies to personal and public experiences the core content perspectives of the many academic fields of the social studies. Our entire social experiences, as well as our republic, are established upon the principles of individual citizenship. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to the education of those future citizens.

The Iowa Core for Social Studies is premised upon a rigorous and relevant K – 12 social studies program. Engaging students in the pursuit of active informed citizenship will require a broad range of understandings and skills. It will also require an articulated district curriculum which connects students to the social world through informed instructional experiences led by teachers who are committed to active civic participation. This represents a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.

If the problem isn’t immediately apparent, let’s take a look at the inquiry anchor standard taking informed action. Under the draft standards, Kindergarten students are expected to “[t]ake group or individual action to help address local, regional, and/or global problems (e.g., letters to the editor, public service announcement, community service projects, and posters).”

While I agree with the writing team that education is important to prepare students for whatever civic engagement they choose to pursue, there is an important distinction to be made between teaching the relevant content of history, geography, economics, and government that could form the foundation of civic participation and directing that actual civic participation under the guise of developing civic competence.

Setting aside that Kindergarteners seem unlikely to possess the skills and knowledge to craft effective letters to the editor, we’re talking about state actors directing students to make political speech and take other political action. I can’t see any way for this to be done in a content and viewpoint neutral way. It seems like this should have been an obvious problem for a group purporting to carry on the work of the Founders, but apparently it wasn’t.

As an alternative, I’d like to see Iowa develop history-driven (chronological order, please) content standards (see, as an example, South Carolina’s 2005 social studies standards). Through the study of history, students have the opportunity to learn about the structure of our government institutions and the reasons why our government institutions are structured the way they are. In addition, our history is full of compelling stories of political action and movements that have shaped our nation–the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and more. These stories can help students build the foundational knowledge of civic competence while leaving them to make their own choices about their own political activity.

Unfortunately, the draft standards are weak on any specific historical content knowledge.  Compare Iowa’s draft 4th grade standards with South Carolina’s 2005 4th grade standards. Or Iowa’s draft 8th grade standards (US history) with South Carolina’s 2005 4th and 5th grade standards (US history). I’ll leave it to you to determine which standards are more likely to result in students prepared “to bring to bear the complex and sophisticated ways of thinking utilized by historians when thinking historically.”

Another mistake, I think, is the decision of the writing team to try to embed Iowa history throughout the K-12 standards. If Iowa history were assigned to a particular grade level, then the University of Iowa Press and IPTV have us covered for teaching materials.

All in all, I’d like to see the review team to recommend a substantial, content-driven rewrite of the draft standards but have no expectation that will happen.


New Science Standards and Implications for Assessment

The Assessment Task Force is getting back together this fall to make recommendations for science assessments now that the State Board of Education has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, as modified and recommended by the Science Standards Review Team, as the new Iowa Core science standards.

As part of my preparation for this next stage of our work, I’m reading the Science Standards Review Team Report 2015 and trying to make sense of the implications of the new standards for statewide standardized (accountability) assessment. I was also fortunate to have been able to sit down this week with Solon’s Matt Townsley, a knowledgeable, thoughtful, and patient local administrator and assessment enthusiast, who graciously agreed to talk over the new science standards and some implications for assessment with me.

Here’s where I am at in my understanding so far (and, note, that any misunderstandings are my own–if you see any, please leave an explanation in the comments):

The Next Generation Science Standards are made up of Disciplinary Core Ideas (what to teach), Science and Engineering Practices (how to teach), and Crosscutting Concepts (?). These (what and how to teach) have been combined into model Performance Expectations. These Performance Expectations are what have been adopted as Iowa’s science standards with, at least, two modifications.

First, the Science Standards Review Team organized the middle school grade band performance expectations into Iowa specific grade level standards for grades six, seven, and eight. Second, the Science Standards Review Team recommended adoption of the performance expectations without adopting the assessment boundaries and connection boxes.

The Science Standards Review Team did not organize the high school grade band performance expectations into specific grade level standards.

Implications for Statewide Standardized Assessments [more questions, than answers]

As I understand it, there are no NGSS-aligned large-scale standardized assessments currently ready for use and that it can take four or five years to properly develop new standardized assessment. Thus, it seems likely that statewide science assessments will not align with the new science standards for several years or more. [Question: because the Iowa Core standards are required to be implemented already, are changes to the standards required to be implemented immediately?]

Iowa Code 256.7(21)(b)(2) requires, beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, all students in grades three through eleven to be assessed annually in core academic indicators, which include science. In any case, some school districts may be assessing science annually to evaluate effectiveness of curriculum and/or to monitor annual student progress (are students making a year’s worth of progress each year?).

If other states are only assessing students in science in grades five, eight, and eleven, what are the prospects for Iowa working with other states to develop a large-scale science assessment aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards? Surely other states won’t want to share the costs of developing assessments at other grade levels they won’t be using.

Without specific grade level standards for grades nine, ten, and eleven, how should the assessment developer determine which standards to assess on each grade level assessment?

Conversely, if the Iowa Legislature were, for instance, to determine that science should only be assessed statewide at grades five, eight, and eleven after all, does that undermine the work of having made Iowa-specific changes to the NGSS? [Questions: should we make changes in Iowa for the purpose of working with other states? If we don’t, does that affect comparability of state assessment results? How much does that actually matter?]

Where does that leave Iowa districts in evaluating science curriculum and tracking annual progress of students? Possibly with non-aligned standardized science assessments? Locally created assessments? [Questions: is it essential or important to track annual student progress in science or is it qualitatively different than math and reading? What does that mean for statewide STEM initiatives–does not measuring annually devalue science in any important respects? How many data points are needed to effectively evaluate curriculum?]

The assessment boundaries, not required in Iowa, are apparently meant to guide the development of large scale assessments. See, for instance, this example used by NGSS in the document linked in the preceding sentence [click to make larger]:

NGSS example

As the assessment boundaries are not required (not adopted as part of the standards), should they still be used to guide development of statewide assessments? If they are used to guide statewide assessments, does that make them, in effect, required anyway? If they aren’t used to guide development of the assessments, then what?

What is (or should be) the purpose of statewide assessment in Iowa–accountability for what to teach or for what and how to teach? If students are content proficient, how much does how they were taught matter from a statewide, rather than local, perspective?

Performance assessments are significantly costlier in time to administer and money (particularly in human scoring of constructed responses). That suggests assessment at grades five, eight, and eleven rather than annually–unless school districts suddenly receive a state funding windfall that covers all assessment costs plus added time in the year to make up for instructional hours lost to statewide assessment. Assuming no funding windfall, do we gain enough from performance assessments to justify either the diversion of additional time and money from instruction or the loss of annual data?

What am I missing–or misunderstanding? What else should I know–or should I be reading up on–for this next round of Assessment Task Force work?

Added (9/24): If we assess only grades 5, 8, and 11, what do we assess? Just grade level content (leaving grade level content for grades 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10 unassessed) or assess grade bands (perhaps spending only 1/3 of each assessment on each grade level and covering fewer of the grade level standards)? What are the “teaching to the test” implications of either of these decisions?

One question answered: full K-12 implementation of the new science standards is expected for the 2018-2019 school year. Question: what to use for science assessment until that year and can an NGSS-aligned assessment be properly developed in time to be used beginning in that year (roughly three years out, and assessments may take four to five years to develop).

So the State Board of Education Met . . .

. . . and I took a stab at live-tweeting it. I had fun, but I’m now convinced that live-tweeting is at least a two person job as it was hard–for me anyway–to try to take extensive notes plus compose tweets plus keep up with my Twitter feed.

In case you missed the live-tweeting, I’ve put together a Storify version of it here.

For future reference, I see that the DE was using the hashtag #iastatebd yesterday on Twitter.

It’s old news at this point, but the Iowa State Board of Education, by unanimous vote, adopted the Next Generation Science Standards as presented in the Science Standards Review Team Report. See news coverage herehere, and here. The State Board also, by unanimous vote, directed the DE to draft rules implementing the Assessment Task Force’s recommendation number one (adopt the Smarter Balanced Assessments) for the 2016-17 school year and to reconvene the Assessment Task Force to review science assessments. See news coverage here and here.

On the drive home, a few things struck me about the State Board discussion around assessment.

First, that individual state board members publicly acknowledged that the costs of the Smarter Balanced assessments for districts would be more (not the same or less). Of course, that didn’t stop them from voting to move forward with adopting the assessments, as at least two of the board members opined that it would be easy for either districts or the Legislature to find the money. Miller suggested that people write or talk to legislators.

Perhaps you have just slapped your forehead and thought–as I did–“I wish I had thought of talking or writing to legislators about the need for more school funding! I’ll have to give that a try. No doubt it will be very effective, when we finally do it.”

Or maybe you were just wondering if state board members follow the news or any social media accounts. At all.

Second, it occurred to me that the state board members did not raise the issue of technology readiness for statewide online assessment as part of the discussion yesterday, nor did they discuss the experiences other states had administering the Smarter Balanced assessments this spring. Based on a non-discussion, it is hard to know if they aren’t following national news or are otherwise unaware of these issues, or if they feel that these issues have been adequately covered in other meetings or, perhaps, by the Assessment Task Force.

Which brings me to a third thought, as I considered this Barry Garelick tweet (referencing science standards adoption) again this afternoon:

And that thought, or question, really, is whether the use of task forces and review teams, whatever their merits might be (and I do think they may have some), removes too much of the deliberative process from the public eye.

I didn’t stick around for the agenda item on a public school choir singing religious songs, but interested readers can find coverage of State Board action on that item here and here.

Thoughts on the actions taken by the state board? Or on the processes in place for making decisions about public education on behalf of the citizens of Iowa? Are the decisions being made good ones, sufficiently transparent, and being made by the right people?

ATF: Participating as a Parent

It can be time consuming to participate in education policy decision-making task forces, boards, or committees at the state or local level, but parents need to be heard. It is worthwhile to attend meetings, speak during public comment, write or call decision-makers, or write letters to the editors or guest opinions for the local paper. However, as I noted in an earlier post, there is something particularly rewarding–and empowering–about participating from a seat (with a vote!) at the table.

I don’t expect to have another opportunity to serve at the statewide or local level (not for lack of trying), so I encourage all parents to volunteer and take advantage of the opportunity to serve on committees working on education issues of great interest to you, if it is offered.

Parent voices, in my experience, are more often merely tolerated, rather than welcomed.* And a non-educator in a room full of educators is inescapably an outsider in some sense.** It isn’t necessarily easy to walk into–and speak up in–a group as an outsider, even less so, if you become aware there may be unresolvable differences of opinion.

Here are some things I found helpful to remember or to do:

Many education policy decisions are a matter of values, preferences, and priorities.

In the case of the assessment task force, we weren’t being asked to write accountability assessments, just evaluate and make recommendations about accountability assessments written by assessment professionals. If you are invited to serve as a parent representative, you are there to offer a non-educator parent perspective. If a group member, hypothetically, were to observe at the outset that all of the educators are also parents (implying, perhaps, that your presence and participation is superfluous) speak up anyway and without prefacing your comments with “I’m just a parent . . .” or “I’m not an expert, but . . .” These statements, in my opinion, signal that your opinions, comments, or questions don’t count as much as other group members’ opinions, comments, or questions.

Not needing to be an expert is different that not needing to be informed.

While it is important to review the agenda and read any materials distributed for discussion at meetings, this won’t be enough to inform your participation. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to inform yourself. For the assessment task force, I found Twitter, education blogs, and subscriptions to both local papers and Education Week to be great sources of information. This takes time but makes active and productive participation possible.

Talk about the work of your group with non-group members.

As the internet can function as an echo chamber, so can a closed group. I found it helpful to talk to other parents and other educators, both to inform myself on issues and to get a sense of opinions held by non-group members about our task force work. As it became clear that I would be in a distinct minority on the task force with regard to Smarter Balanced assessments, it helped to know that I was not alone in my viewpoint in my larger community. If my view had been in line with the task force’s recommendation, it would have been equally reassuring to know that others in my larger community supported that too.

In short, my unsolicited advice to parents who have the opportunity to serve is this: do your homework and speak up without apology.

And for those of us parents not invited to the table? We have options for participating anyway: paying attention, showing up to meetings, speaking up during public comment, and writing about education issues–whether it be blogposts, letters to decision-makers, letters to the editor, or guest opinions.

*I have found some Iowa educators to be welcoming of parents on Twitter and blogs. In fact, EdCampIowa has specifically invited parents to participate. As of now, tickets are still available at all five locations (Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Cherokee, Council Bluffs, and Ankeny)  for January 31, 2015.

**I should note here that though I remained an outsider throughout our work, I enjoyed working with the other task force members; if I was unwelcome, they hid it well.

ATF: An Extended Response

I was unable to fully respond to the task force’s rationale for recommending adoption of the Smarter Balanced assessments in my written dissent for our report, so I am going to share some additional comments here.

The task force notes that the Smarter Balanced assessments were written specifically to address the Common Core. The Next Generation Iowa Assessments were also written to assess the Common Core standards and ITP would be able to develop questions to address the non-Common Core portions of the Iowa Core standards if requested to do so by the state.

The task force notes that the computerized assessments can make selected response results quickly available to educators, students, and parents. I am not sure there is much value in releasing partial scores, particularly to students and parents. It also isn’t clear how much faster the final scores will be released compared to the Iowa Assessments, as it is expected to take several weeks to score the performance task items.

The task force sees value in the performance task items in measuring higher order thinking skills. There are questions about just how much higher order thinking a standardized assessment can realistically measure. Consider this passage from page 15 of H. Wu’s Assessments for the Common Core Mathematics Standards:

Well-chosen constructed response items can assess sequential thinking, of course, but their presence on high-stakes tests is severely limited by the need to make the tests easily and cheaply gradable. Consequently, such constructed response items are constrained to be not too hard, and they are also usually broken down into smaller pieces so that each piece becomes easier to grade. This defeats the purpose of assessing sequential thinking.

Then consider, as an example, this sample Smarter Balanced assessments grade six math performance task item (click to make bigger):


If we look at the scoring guide, we can see an example of what H. Wu has described. The students have been led through the steps to solving the problem:

  • calculate the volume of the current box
  • label a net (diagram of a flattened box) with the dimensions of the current box
  • determine the surface area of the current box
  • determine whether proposed dimensions meet the company’s criteria (at this point, students would have to realize that they should do the first three steps of the problem again using the proposed dimensions, then compare the results to the criteria)
  • design a new box to meet the company’s criteria (at this point, students would have to realize that they should do the first three steps of the problem again using numbers that they have chosen until they come up with numbers that meet the company’s criteria)

This performance task requires less higher order thinking of students than it would if they had to figure out the steps–or even how to calculate the surface area of the box without being provided the diagram–for themselves. (See more sample performance task scoring guides and classroom activities here.) Are these performance task items worth the 4 to 4.5 hours they add to the administration time of the assessments (and subtract from instructional time)? These might be better than a selected response version of the same series of questions, but they fall short of more open ended classroom assignments that could allow students to generate their own questions (perhaps on something other than boxes) and to do authentic research, writing, and presenting about them.

The task force asserts that having a shared system of formative assessment practices and interim assessments allows for powerful collaboration that has the potential to transform teaching and learning for our students. I think that the task force may be overestimating the value of standardization. First, we already have common standards. Second, it is hard to see why teachers can’t talk to each other about how to teach division with fractions or persuasive writing just because they use different classroom quizzes or tests. I will allow that using Smarter Balanced interim assessments might make it easier for teachers to collaborate on how to teach students how to satisfy Smarter Balanced scoring rubrics, but I’m not convinced that is a worthy goal in and of itself.

The task force relies on SBAC’s assertion that a six hundred student middle school would only need thirty computers to test all of its students. I think this underestimates both the technological challenges of the move to statewide online testing and the logistical challenges of scheduling a large number of students for lengthy, yet un-timed, computer-based tests on a relatively small number of computers. I have written about this topic before, but the stories keep coming: Colorado school districts debate move to online state tests and Minnesota schools hit glitches with online testing (HT: Diane Ravitch).

Finally, I don’t share the task force’s optimism that the state will fund all of the necessary technology upgrades, the IT staff, the professional development, and the full suite assessments, or that those funds would come without a reduction to supplemental state aid. I would love to be proved wrong on this point, though, if our school district were to receive this funding windfall I’d still rather it were used to restore (and expand) programming (elementary orchestra, German language) lost in the last round of budget cuts.

Ultimately, for me, it comes back to the points I did make in my written dissent: we can’t know whether the Smarter Balanced assessments are worth the additional costs when we haven’t quantified those costs, and in any case, these assessments divert more time and money from instructional programming than necessary for accountability purposes.

Chris Liebig at A Blog About School has also made extensive comments about the task force recommendations in his Des Moines Register/Iowa City Press Citizen guest opinion and additional notes.


ATF: Thoughts on Our Process

I enjoyed serving on the task force more than I should probably admit. Having steeled myself to make public comments at school board meetings a time or two, I can say that it is rewarding to have others actually respond to your comments and questions and to be able to participate throughout the meeting. I appreciated the opportunity to become acquainted with the other task force members and DE employees. It was also interesting to have an insider look at how things get done.

I am generally not a fan of trying to accomplish anything by committee. Too many people involved and it can be difficult to get things done, too few involved and you may miss out on hearing a variety of perspectives. Twenty-one members ended up working out pretty well in terms of ensuring representation of various groups while still giving everyone plenty of opportunity to voice their opinions; if we erred, it was always on the side of letting discussions run long rather than cutting things short before everyone had had their say.

In retrospect, I’d say that we spent far too much time drafting the screening rubric and might have better used that time collecting additional information and deliberating. We might also have benefitted from getting an earlier start drafting the report as it helped clarify what information we had or did not have about the assessments.

Other things that ended up working well:

  • Icebreaker introductions. I didn’t start out a fan of these, but they helped us get acquainted a bit and warmed up for discussion at the start of each meeting. I suppose once you have spoken up in front of a large group of people, it is easier to speak up again.
  • Using technology to share documents and work together. I have gained some additional 21st century skills.
  • Using subgroups and small groups to accomplish some of the work that would have been difficult to get done with twenty-one people all at once.

Other things that worked less well:

  • Receiving materials shortly before the meeting. Whether hundreds of pages of vendor materials or a twenty page article for discussion, I like to have plenty of time to read and think before discussion at the meetings.
  • Pair and share activities. They seem to be a waste of time when the group isn’t too large for a whole group discussion. Thankfully we didn’t use these often after the first few meetings.
  • The twelve hour meeting. Seriously. In September, we met for twelve hours. It ended up being a good meeting (thank goodness for endless refills of caffeinated beverages), but conference room chairs are not designed for that many hours of sitting and it was inevitable that we would end the meeting with both shouting and uncontrollable giggling. Five hour meetings are definitely preferable.
  • Absence of the press and the public.

In the end, I think we were working pretty smoothly as a group. Though after more than seventy hours of meetings over fourteen months, I don’t think any task force members are sorry to see our work come to an end.

Updated to add: Fist to five voting completely slipped my mind. It worked well during preliminary decision-making when we were still in the process of deliberating and consensus-building, but was cause for some confusion during final votes. It would be more clear to have simple yes/no final votes on motions and recommendations.

Decision-making rules also ended up working well. Creating a majority vote rule (rather than requiring unanimity) allowed us to make decisions and move on, rather than allowing one person to hold up everything or forcing people to withdraw their dissent to keep things moving.

ATF: Process Matters

I have previously written about my concerns about whether task forces, boards, and commissions are operating in ways designed to obtain relatively independent, thorough, and fair study and deliberation of issues before recommendations are crafted or whether they are managed to build consensus around or buy-in for recommendations or decisions made ahead of time.

When the press only covers the recommendations–the results–of a task force, as it has in the case of the assessment task force, it isn’t necessarily easy to tell which sort of process was followed. Meeting notes are far from being transcripts and have not, in my opinion, adequately captured the quality, intensity, and extent of our discussions.*

Our perception that we were independent, thorough, and fair in our work is not an adequate substitute for the judgment of the public, for whom we work. If it were, open meetings and open records laws would be unnecessary as we could just assure you that we acted properly behind closed doors and just report out the results.

Here are some of the discussions and decisions that shaped the final recommendations that might have benefitted from public scrutiny:

  • discussion of DE conflict of interest (Jan. 2015)
  • decision not to review science assessments (Nov. 2014, Jan. 2015, Feb. 2015)
  • decision to open a new RFI after no vendor followed through with providing information on Smarter Balanced assessments under the initial RFI (June 2015)
  • decision to remove the combined ACT/ACT Aspire from further consideration (July 2015, Sept. 2015)
  • deliberations (Nov. 2015, Dec. 2015)

How did we do with our process? Did we get these decisions right? Were our deliberations thorough and fair? Did we raise and discuss the right issues? Does our process matter to your confidence in our recommendations?

Do we need better coverage and attendance at meetings of state level policymaking groups?What can be done to encourage coverage, especially as newsrooms are being downsized? Is there a role for bloggers here or technology–like the broadcast of school board and city council meetings and live audio- and video-streaming of the Iowa House and Senate?

*Nor have they always been timely posted; as of today, meeting notes for some meetings as far back as March are not yet posted.