REPORT CARD: Iowa Schools Not Keeping Up

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Colfax-Mingo third grade teacher Elizabeth Pyle has been in the classroom long enough to see a drastic change in where Iowa ranks in public education.

“I think education has changed a lot over the years,” said Pyle.

“In 1992, Iowa was a top performer in 8th grade math and 4th grade reading,” said Linda Fandel, Special Assistant for Education in Governor Branstad’s office.

While other states have aggressively passed education reform, Iowa hasn’t.

For years, districts have been allowed to teach what they want, how they want to teach it.

“Iowa for years has resisted having a set of state standards that crossed every school district and every student,” said Tom Downs, Executive Director of the Iowa Association of School Boards.

That has allowed Massachusetts to become the new leader in public education.

The state has given districts local flexibility while aggressively passing reform over the past twenty year.

It’s working.

“A lot of this was driven by things legislators and other policy makers were hearing from employers and the business community that students graduating from high schools in Massachusetts weren’t demonstrating the skills needed to employ them,” said J.C. Considine, the Director of Board & Media Relations at Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Let’s use 8th grade math as an example.

In 1992, Massachusetts ranked 12th on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP.

A year later, lawmakers passed the Education Reform Act giving districts guidelines on what students needed to learn and in 1998 came a matching state test called the MCAS.

Scores went up 14 points, but lawmakers weren’t done.

In the past decade, passing the math, reading, and science portions of the MCAS has become a graduation requirement.

In 2010, the state received a waiver from No Child Left Behind and developed a five level accountability system.

The lowest performing districts can be taken over by the state or placed on a three-year program for improvement.

Massachusetts has seen its score rise 26 points, and has vaulted into to the nation’s top spot.

“We take tremendous pride in the performance of our public school students on our state measures and national measures like NAEP,” Considine told Channel 13 News.

In the same time frame, Iowa’s test scores have matched our lack of action in education reform.

“The best outcomes are not happening for kids,” said Jason Glass, Director of the Iowa Department of Education.

In 1992, Iowa’s NAEP scores were the highest in the nation.

With little education reform until 2008, our score has increased just two points in twenty years.

We’re now 25th in 8th grade math.

“If there are lessons we can learn from elsewhere or things we can learn from our own schools, by all means, let’s learn those lessons and implement changes,” said Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from District 23.

The best practices from states like Massachusetts are beginning to be implemented.

In 2008, the Iowa Department of Education adopted the Iowa Core.

“The Iowa Core provides a set of more rigorous math, science, and language arts, requiring a certain amount of years of teaching in these subjects in order to graduate,” said Downs.

In 2010, Iowa adopted Common Core standards that better prepare students for college and the working world.

“Those are the things we have to focus on,” said Glass.

Legislators from both chambers continue to debate the next move.

“The centerpiece is to try to retract and retain the best possible teachers and provide them with a career path that keeps them in the classroom but improves instruction by making them mentors to other teachers,” said Representative Ron Jorgensen, a Republican from District 6.

“A companion to that is the Teach Iowa program which recruits good new teachers to the profession by providing economic incentive,” Quirmbach told Channel 13 News.

Future NAEP scores will give lawmakers a good idea if Iowa is on its way to becoming a success story like some of our local districts.

“What are we going to do to make them better and hope they achieve,” said Brian Summy, Principal of Colfax-Mingo Elementary School.

Five years ago, just over half of the third graders in the Colfax-Mingo school district were proficient in reading.

Remember Elizabeth Pyle? She’s proud to say that almost all of her students are now up to speed.

“They don’t feel like they’re lost in the shuffle. It’s not one size fits all. Our reading books go from second to fifth grade level and can be challenging for some students,” said Pyle.

Link to NAEP scores:


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