Special Report

The Road Less Traveled

Iowa appears to have lost some of its academic edge over other states a decade after bucking the trend toward imposing state standards for what students should learn.
By Jeff Archer — January 03, 2006 11 min read
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In the late 1990s, when the nation’s governors and business leaders threw their weight behind the push for statewide academic standards, Iowa begged to differ. With its strong tradition of local control and history of comparatively high performance, the state felt little compulsion to join the bandwagon.


A Small Wonder
Big States, Big Results
The Road Less Traveled
Staying the Course
Investing in the Future
Playing Catch-Up
Table of Contents

“We’re not going to give up local control just because some CEO says we need statewide standards,” then-Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican, told US News & World Report on the eve of a national education summit in March 1996, hosted by IBM in Palisades, N.Y.

Today, Iowa remains a relatively high-performing state. But over time, the state may be losing its edge. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 1992 show Iowa slipping in its standing relative to the country as a whole in both reading and mathematics.

Iowa education leaders offer a range of theories to explain the trend. Some question NAEP’s validity. Others point to Iowa’s changing demographics: The state is becoming racially and ethnically more diverse, and people are becoming more concentrated in larger population centers, away from its characteristic small towns.

Many also contend that it’s hardest to make headway when you’re already ahead, although some other states with similarly high performance and even more diverse student enrollments, such as Massachusetts, have maintained their leads.

What role the absence of state standards might have played in Iowa’s comparative lack of progress on some measures is hard to gauge. Iowa districts do follow their own guidelines for what students should know and be able to do. But, in actual practice, state and local officials say, those guidelines vary little from district to district.

A school bus passes snow-dusted fields on a late-afternoon route in Anamosa, Iowa. Local school officials have mixed feelings about the state's hands-off approach to standards.

The only difference, many here maintain, is that local educators feel more buy-in for having determined the final product.

“Just because you have something on paper statewide doesn’t mean that’s going to make everything better,” says Staci Edwards, a district administrator in the 1,400-student Anamosa schools, expressing the view of many in her state.

At the same time, some Iowa educators lament the energy they’ve had to expend creating standards that their counterparts elsewhere received from their states. That energy, they say, could have gone toward improving instruction.

Dewitt Jones, the superintendent here in the 10,500-student Waterloo district in the state’s northeast quadrant, says that however hard to measure, there has been a cost to Iowa’s reliance on self-determination. “How dissimilar are we now [across the state]? Probably not much,” he says. “But the road to where we are now was sure rocky.”

‘Locus of Control’

Iowa’s deference to local autonomy has deep roots. When state lawmakers first mapped out the education system in the 19th century, they allowed towns with as few as 1,000 people to run their own school districts—a number that was later lowered to 100, for a time.

Even today, after decades of district consolidations, 70 percent of Iowa’s 365 districts have fewer than 1,000 students.

Iowa entered the modern accountability movement in the late 1980s with state legislation that required all districts to draft their own annual school improvement plans, including targets for growth in student achievement. State review teams began assessing how well districts were carrying out those plans in periodic visits.

Vital Statistics
Public schools1,491
Public school teachers34,791
Pre-K-12 students481,226
Annual pre-K-12 expenditures$3.7 billion
Minority students12%
Children in poverty12%
Students with disabilities13.3%
English-language learners3.2%

In a similar vein, in 1998, the Iowa legislature mandated that each district establish its own set of expectations for the academic content and skills that students should master. As a result, Iowa is the only state where academic standards in reading and math have been left to local discretion.

And yet, the standards weren’t drafted in a vacuum. State and local education leaders say most Iowa districts sought guidance from the same national groups, such as the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which publishes detailed descriptions of what students should learn in math.

Further, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, required that each state assess all of its public school students with the same measures. Iowa education officials instituted a process for districts to check the alignment of their local standards with the state’s chosen assessments, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, or ITBS, for the elementary and middle grades and its high school counterpart, the Iowa Test of Educational Development, or ITED.

“When people say Iowa doesn’t have state standards, they’re missing the other part of the conversation,” says Judy Jeffrey, the director of the state department of education. “Every single school district in this state has standards. The locus of control is just one level lower.”

Any remaining doubt about whether standards-based education takes place in Iowa would be erased by a visit to the 5th grade class of teacher Kara Haugen in Waterloo. On a Wednesday morning last fall, her students were sprawled about their colorful room at Cunningham School for Excellence creating posters to explain idioms, like “cold turkey” and “peas in a pod.”

The reason for the assignment? Haugen and her fellow 5th grade teachers at the school had given their students a test and found they were struggling to infer the meaning of what they read. Asked how that skill fits into her district’s standards, Haugen can point to it in a binder over at her desk that lays out a curriculum that covers all that a 5th grader in Waterloo is expected to learn.

Now in her sixth year as a teacher, Haugen says she wouldn’t want it otherwise. “Some teachers’ idea of what a 5th grader should know might be different than another teacher’s, so this definitely sets out a direction for what should be taught,” she says. “It’s only fair to the kids.”

Having that direction come from the district, and not the state, has had consequences, however. One is that while districts across Iowa have similar goals for what students should learn over the course of their education, there’s still no guarantee that what they teach at each grade level is the same.

Another is that each of Iowa’s districts has had to develop its own standards and grade-level expectations, although with help from the state’s 12 Area Education Agency offices, which give technical support to local systems.

In Waterloo, the sixth-largest district in the state, it took two years and dozens of teachers to produce standards and specific grade-level expectations for literacy and math. Only recently has the district managed to add similar guidelines for science.

“The hours that we put into development of this could be hours spent on other curriculum and instruction matters,” says Debbie Lee, Waterloo’s elementary school coordinator. “We really want to be more in there helping teachers with the delivery, and we are having to create and develop and revise standards, benchmarks, and objectives.”

Accountability Quirks?

Allowing for local standards also poses challenges for Iowa’s statewide assessment.

A Slower Pace of Progress

Fourth grade students in Iowa gained 10 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam between 1992 and 2005. But fellow students in Massachusetts gained 20.7 points and students in North Carolina gained 28.4 points.


Note: Accommodations were not permitted for students with disabilities and English-language learners in 1992 and 1996.

Losing Ground

In 2005, 4th grade students in Iowa scored 4.7 points lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam compared with Iowa students in 1992. But students in Massachusetts gained 5.3 points and students in North Carolina gained 5.6 points over the same period.

*Click image to enlarge


Note: Accommodations were not permitted for students with disabilities and English-language learners in 1992 and 1994.

SOURCE: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2006

States with statewide standards are able to produce tests that reflect those standards. But when the No Child Left Behind law mandated statewide testing across the country, Iowa opted to use the ITBS and ITED off-the-shelf exams. Though they’re produced by the Iowa Testing Program, based at the University of Iowa, those tests bearing the state’s name are used throughout the United States.

Edwards, the administrator in the Anamosa district, says that although she favors local standards, districts in Iowa can be penalized in the state’s school accountability system under the federal law if they choose not to have those standards match what’s on the ITBS and the ITED. Her district, she notes, calls for teaching 5th graders fractions after the point in the year when they’re tested on the subject.

“We’ve spent a lot of time making sure we have standards and grade-level expectations that are exactly what we want our kids to know,” Edwards says, “and then we’ve selected a state test that may not personify what that is.”

Iowa’s choice of assessments sets it apart in another respect. Most states use tests that produce raw scores that show whether students have mastered what the state expects them to learn. By contrast, the ITBS and the ITED are norm-referenced, meaning they’re used to produce percentile scores that show how student performance compares with a national average.

With the No Child Left Behind requirement that all students achieve their state’s definition of proficiency in reading and math by 2014, Iowa had to map out a plan for accomplishing that goal while using tests that are graded on a curve. The state’s response: define proficiency as scoring at the 40th percentile on the two tests, but with that percentile always to be based on what the national average was in 2000.

While some local administrators criticize the state’s adoption of the ITBS and the ITED for accountability purposes, state officials counter that almost all Iowa districts had been using the exams for their own monitoring decades before the federal law came along. Going with familiar assessments, they say, meant less adjustment for administrators and teachers.

Despite whatever quirks may have resulted from how local control has played out in Iowa, the state’s approach has plenty of fans, who say it’s better than the alternative. Many here believe that having local standards has spared them some of the mania over test preparation that they believe takes place in states with more rigid state expectations.

“What I hear from other states is they spend two to three months preparing the kids for the state tests,” says Carol Lensing, the superintendent in Anamosa. “I don’t think that’s going to help our kids at all, if you have to do away with your regular instruction for that.”

Comparing Scores

Regardless of how Iowa’s lack of state standards may have affected its performance, what is clear is that other states are catching up, at least when it comes to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

From 1992 to 2005, for example, Iowa 4th graders saw their NAEP reading scores decrease by 4.7 points, while national scores increased by 2.5 points. Though the state’s 4th graders have not made gains on NAEP reading overall, they still score above the national average.

In addition, the reading score for black 4th graders in the state dropped from 208 in 1992 to 201 in 2005, although that change is not statistically significant.

Jeffrey, Iowa’s schools chief, is skeptical of NAEP scores for racial and ethnic subgroups in Iowa, given their small sample size in a state where, compared with the country as a whole, few students are members of minority groups.

Like other education leaders in Iowa, she also says it’s good that other states are making progress. “It’s very difficult to say that just because Iowa doesn’t have state standards—as determined by someone else’s perception—that that is the reason others are catching up,” Jeffrey says. “I think it’s because everybody is paying attention to what needs to be done for our students in this nation.”

This is not to say she isn’t concerned about her state’s performance.

Although results from Iowa’s assessments don’t fully parallel those from NAEP, they do show problem spots as students progress through school.

Iowa’s reading-proficiency rate on the ITBS, which the state tracks by combining two years of results, was 78 percent among its 4th graders in the biennium that ran from fall 2003 to spring 2005. For 8th grade, it was 70.6 percent.

Moreover, the proficiency rate among 11th graders on the ITED in reading hasn’t budged from 77 percent in the 2001-2003 biennium.

In response, Jeffrey and her boss, Gov. Tom Vilsack, have been making a pitch for more demanding high school programs. For now, the effort is proceeding in Iowa fashion. Rather than mandate higher graduation requirements, the state is urging districts to do so on their own.

Many districts appear to be heeding the call. A state survey last fall showed that 256 of the state’s 365 districts are requiring at least three years of math to graduate for the class of 2010. That’s up from 104 districts that had that requirement for the class of 2005. The number of districts requiring three years of science is set to grow from 65 to 238 in that time.

In the eyes of the governor, those changes can’t come too soon. Vilsack, a Democrat who is considered a potential presidential candidate in 2008, has been reminding Iowans that their graduates increasingly are competing for jobs not just with their peers in other states, but also around the globe.

As he told a group of Iowa district administrators recently: “The reality is that we have no more time to lose, because folks behind us are running faster.”

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