Jefferson, Georgia
SPECIAL REPORT
ITBS: The Holy Grail of school performance
March 17, 1999


1999 ITBS Test Scores for Jackson County Schools
(Uploaded May 26, 1999)


Annual test now has impact beyond just student scores
BY MIKE BUFFINGTON AND ANGELA GARY
If the power of the pen is like a sword, then the power of a No. 2 pencil held by a third-grader is a Sherman tank. At least that's a prevailing view of many school administrators as students begin taking the annual Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).
This week, students in local elementary and middle schools began taking the test, which has in recent years become THE standard by which many have come to judge schools and school systems. As a nationwide test, the ITBS forms a comparison of students to their peers from all states, a result that is more accurate than many other tests, say some school leaders. And because parents now place such importance on standardized test results, education leaders have begun to emphasize the ITBS within their schools.
"It partly has to do with how everybody's talking about accountability and how to measure accountability," said Ronnie Hopkins, chairman of the Jefferson Board of Education and president of the Georgia School Boards Association. "The public's perception is that the (ITBS) test is important."
Indeed, high ITBS scores have become the Holy Grail of public education, the much-sought prize that is launching thousands of new educational crusades. In part, Jefferson's decision to begin school two weeks earlier next year was to gain extra instructional time before ITBS testing, said Hopkins.
But not everyone's happy about how the test is being used to evaluate schools, saying the judgment of a particular school is more complex than one test.
"Unfortunately, the drawback to this test is that it has become so politically important," said Dr. Mary Leuzinger, curriculum director for the Jackson County School System. "Some schools are making advances within their own schools, but it may not show up in comparison to other schools, especially if (schools) are reported as rankings."
Leuzinger said that she'd had calls from real estate agents who wanted to know ITBS test results to pass along to clients who have come to judge schools based on those scores. But Leuzinger said the public should not make generalizations about a school from the test scores without looking at other factors, such as the school population.
"I think people sometimes use it for the wrong reason," she said. "They oversimplify."
ONE TEST, MANY PARTS
Indeed, results from the test are complex. The ITBS has six parts and is taken by virtually all elementary and middle school children. While an individual school may do well in one area, such as fifth grade reading, it may falter in other areas. Even within one discipline, such as reading, the results can vary widely from grade to grade.
For example, two years ago nearly 43 percent of third graders at South Jackson Elementary School fell into the lowest 25 percent of ITBS reading scores, a result nearly twice as bad as the overall state average for those at the bottom.
But last year, SJES third graders did markedly better, with only 15.7 percent at the bottom in reading, a result that was over six points better than the state average.
Such a dramatic turnaround in one year is one indication that ITBS results may have less to do with the quality of the school's instruction and more to say about the particular makeup of an individual class. Some classes just seem to perform better than others.
Despite these drawbacks, the test has become a key indicator for measuring how well a school is doing. The Georgia Department of Education compiles state ITBS results in grades three, five and eight as one measure of a school's performance. Various independent think tanks also rely heavily on the results as the main component of how they evaluate the performance of individual schools.
But statewide school rankings from the ITBS are tricky. Take the Jefferson City School System, for example, which last year tied with Fayette County as the best system in third grade composite (overall) scores. It was a great result, but there is a caveat - that was a system evaluation comparing Jefferson's one elementary school to other school systems, many of which have a multitude of elementary schools. When compared as an individual school, JES ranked 102nd in the state.
So last year, JES was either first in the state, or 102nd in its third grade ITBS test, depending on how one looks at the results. And while both results were good (it was the only local elementary school in the top 200), that was just one grade evaluation and perhaps not a reflection of the entire school. The JES fifth grade, for example, ranked 43 out of 180 Georgia school systems and the system's eighth grade ranked 51st. Those are not bad results, but they were not the highest in the area either. (See chart.)
INDIVIDUAL ASSESSMENTS
While using scores from ITBS to compare schools is controversial, its use to measure the strengths and weaknesses of individual students is generally seen as its main strength.
Composed of six parts, the test measures reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and reference skills. By analyzing individual test results, teachers can evaluate the needs of a particular student.
"We have a software package that takes the data apart," said Leuzinger. "For instance, in language it will have punctuation skills or grammar skills with verbs. It will break that down and show both how this year's class performs and it rerosters children at the beginning of the year for the next teacher. It takes their old results and gives her a profile to let her know where each student and the class as a whole stands and where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Still, Leuzinger said it shouldn't be the only measure of a child's abilities.
"You always use it in balance with your professional judgment on a child because they can have an off day on testing," she said.
In addition to evaluating individual students, school systems also use the results to help evaluate curriculum. If one class shows a particular weakness, school leaders can use that to help adjust course content in that area for the next year.
"We use them (test results) for school improvement purposes to look at our programs carefully and to look at individual student progress," said Patty Rooks, associate superintendent for Jefferson City Schools.
At JES, for example, last year's high finish in third grade scoring came largely from strong scores in math, science and language arts. But that grade's reading comprehension scores were low compared to the other areas. Partly in response to that, system leaders recently spent a day at the school reading with this year's third graders, a symbolic gesture to emphasis the importance of reading to students, parents and teachers.
"We've spent a lot of time on redeveloping our reading program," said Hopkins. "We want everyone to see our emphasis on reading as the foundation for other learning."
 
TEACHING FEARS
But the ability to analysis classroom performance from ITBS testing has also brought increased pressure on teachers. Where evaluating teachers in the past was mostly a subjective measure, ITBS results have become a specific tool for administrators to yardstick not just curriculums, but also individual teachers.
"If a teacher is always weak in math computation, then that is something that she can work on," said Leuzinger. "There are books which go over the objectives and ways you can improve instruction."
But when many teachers hear that ITBS results are used to "improve instruction," they fear that part of the adjustment may be in losing their jobs.
"Some administrators are very competitive since the results are published," said one teacher about ITBS testing. "This leads them to pressure teachers. Teachers and principals make goals for the students, but if those goals aren't met, she must do a written professional development plan, which is a list of strategies on how to improve her teaching style. If the teacher doesn't improve, the superintendent says she will lose her job."
In the county school system, said Leuzinger, students are expected to perform at the 50th percentile or better. Areas that fall below that middle range get a close look, she said.
 
TEACHING THE TEST
Because so many critical decisions now stem from ITBS results, some school systems have begun to hold practice tests in an effort to prepare students for the real thing.
"As we get closer to ITBS, teachers teach test-taking strategies, such as timing and when it is appropriate to make a guess and just being 'test wise,'" said Leuzinger. Some schools also use third-party products that "parallels" the real test, she said.
But like other aspects of ITBS testing, that too has become controversial. Rockdale County, for example, has forbid its teachers from "teaching" the test, although it will allow younger children to learn about test taking in general.
But the pressure to do well is a reality, said Hopkins.
"The test is important, but we tell our teachers not to put too much pressure on students and cause the reverse effect."
In addition to prepping children for the test, some schools also encourage parents to make sure their children are fresh for the week of testing. At JES, at least one school-sponsored event was canceled this week so that children wouldn't be out late the night before the test. JES leaders also sent home a memo to parents making them aware of the upcoming test and encouraging them make sure their children sleep well and eat a good breakfast on testing days.