The Ottumwa Courier

October 18, 2013

Hey feds: Hands off Iowa schools

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Gov. Terry Branstad's office announced Friday that the federal government is not going to tell Iowa how to run its schools.

In recent years, No Child Left Behind laws from the U.S. government have demanded compliance with how kids are tested, what they're taught and what happens if goals are not met. An executive order signed by Branstad Thursday says we'll make our own decisions.

Let's just make sure they're the right decisions, said the Ottumwa school district's Superintendent Davis Eidahl.

He didn't have a problem with Brandstad controlling what subjects will be taught.

"The State of Iowa, not the federal government ... shall determine the content of Iowa’s state academic standards, which are known as the Iowa Core," reads the executive order.

"That statement is not going to have any impact on our curriculum," said Eidahl on Friday. "As far as the Iowa Core and the Federal Core, they're pretty much aligned. When you look at our math and literacy standards, they pretty much are the federal common core. So I don't know what statement he's making."

From the timing, said Albia Superintendent Kevin Crall, it seems to be a sort of reassurance to the people of Iowa.

"There's this stigma about [decision makers] at the national level, the feeling that federal government is messed up," Crall said. "Iowa's been a very 'local control' state. I think the governor may want to reassure stakeholders we shouldn't be dictated to [from] the federal level."

The state order would also protect Iowa if the U.S. Department of Education started making changes to their core curriculum in the future, Eidahl said.

"It could help keep us on the same path so we aren't changing course all the time," said the Ottumwa superintendent. "That [portion of the] executive order didn't bother me. What did concern me was his statement about the assessment."

Assessments are the tests students take to determine how well they are doing in school and, at a larger level, how well districts are doing teaching them. A federal law said half of all students had to pass the exam. Now 100 percent of students have to pass the exam. If not, the federal government punishes the district.

"The State of Iowa, not the federal government ... shall choose the statewide assessments that will measure how well students have mastered the Iowa Core. School districts may also choose to use additional assessments to measure student academic progress," the order states.

That sounds good at first, Eidahl said, but there's a worry: A popular test for student (and government) assessment has been the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. More and more districts are moving away from that Iowa test. Could it be that the state doesn't like schools looking to do business outside Iowa, Eidahl wondered.

"As we align to the Iowa core, we have an assessment that doesn't align," he said. "All the states adapting to common core are going to Smarter Balance [tests]. Several of our elementary schools were selected to pilot that test. It's not just regurgitation of facts. Are students able to analyze? Infer? Comprehend? It's a more complex curriculum, and this is a more complex assessment."

So Eidahl is in "wait and see" mode to find out if state law will mandate the ITBS. And if it does, will the ITBS adjust to be more on target?

"The Iowa Test [company] in Iowa City would stand to lose a lot of money if we change tests, but right now, it is not a good test," Eidahl said. "The old test hasn't kept up with the new expectations. We don't just use these tests as an assessment for students, but also, for ourselves as educators, to evaluate our own work."

He said Branstad will hear from several organizations about the needs of schools for accurate testing. But he'll hopefully hear from — and listen to — his own appointee, too.

"I have the utmost respect and confidence in our [Iowa Education Department] director, Dr. Brad Buck. I know him to have a compassionate heart for Iowa kids," said Eidahl.

What exactly will change with the signing of the executive order remains to be seen, Eidahl said. Crall in Albia said the same.

"We'll have to see, see where the dust settles," Crall said. "In the meantime, we've been involved in the Iowa Core, in fact, I just got through with a teachers meeting on Iowa Core, and we're moving forward with that."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark