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
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
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
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
"You always use it in balance with your professional judgment
on a child because they can have an off day on testing,"
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."
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
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.