Standardized Testing: Iowa Tests of Basic Skills

Standardized Testing: Iowa Tests of Basic Skills
The annual summer ritual of standardized testing in our household.
The annual summer ritual of standardized testing in our household.

My love of a bargain resulted in our standardized testing taking a different path this year.

In Virginia, homeschooled students must provide proof of progress each year to their local school district. The “proof” can be either satisfactory performance on a standardized test or an evaluation from a credentialed evaluator.

For the past two years, we used the California Achievement Test circa the 1980’s because it was the cheapest option. This year, that version of the test was being phased out and we had to upgrade to a newer version. It was about $5 cheaper to get the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills rather than the California Achievement Test so we figured we would try Iowa.

The main difference between the two tests is that you need to have at least a Bachelor’s degree to administer the Iowa test whereas there are no qualifications to administer the California Achievement Test. There are also many versions of the Iowa test by grade and you have to select which time of the academic year you are testing (beginning of the year, halfway through the year, end of year, etc.). There is also about a month wait once you register for the Iowa test until you receive the exam and you must administer the exam in the exact week you signed up for.

When the testing materials arrived, it was a bit overwhelming. With two children to test, I had to carefully sort through the 4 inch stack of books to figure out which were the instructions and which were the exams. Once I had read all the instructions, we were ready to test.

My youngest daughter went first and took the end of year first grade version of the Iowa test. I was surprised to see that there was little reading on the test. Most of the test consisted of pictures. “Choose the picture that rhymes with ___” or “Choose the picture that shows someone ______.” They were testing vocabulary, phonics, etc. just with a minimum of words. Since my daughter is a strong reader, it was almost more challenging trying to answer the questions with pictures. It seemed like she was answering the question in her head with a word and then had to find a picture that matched the word she was thinking of.

In general, the English questions were challenging. The vocabulary words were more unusual than I was expecting. The reading comprehension questions asked a lot of inferential questions that are quite hard for young children to answer. Questions like: “Guess how this character felt,” “Why did the character make certain choices?”, and “Predict what will happen next.” To answer these well, you need life experience more than anything else.

The math portion of the first grade exam was much more verbal than I was anticipating. There were almost no questions with straight math problems to answer. Instead there were picture questions where you might listen to a short story problem and then have to choose the picture that showed the right answer. Or there was a story problem to read and word choices for answers. This was very different from the California test where the math section was almost 100% equations to answer. It made me wonder if the diverse population of California influences how their tests are written. If you don’t speak English very well but you really know math, you can at least do very well on the math portion of the California test. In Iowa, you are sunk!

I was a little surprised at how verbal this test was in general. It required a solid understanding of the English language. As I was pondering this, I happened to read an article in The Atlantic about creativity and its link to mental illness and came across this interesting fact about Iowa:

“The University of Iowa is home to the Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most famous creative-writing program in the United States (UNESCO has designated Iowa City as one of its seven ‘Cities of Literature,’ along with the likes of Dublin and Edinburgh).”

-Nancy C. Andreasen, “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” The Atlantic, June 25, 2014

Eureka! The answer. Since each state’s exam tends to reflect its own state values, it seems Iowa sets the bar high as a “City of Literature.”

The third grade exam was not picture oriented like the first grade test. The English test contained questions on spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and reading comprehension. The wording on this test was more difficult than in the practice books we used and the format of some questions was unfamiliar. The math examination had several sections. There were a lot of story problems to solve. One section was timed and only 5 minutes long. They were clearly testing for speed of calculations. Another section asked difficult questions like, “What else would you need to know in order to solve this problem?”

The third grade exam also had sections for social studies and science. Both of these tests had several detailed questions about agriculture. We were not anticipating these questions and they are probably easier to answer if you live in rural Iowa! The science test had questions about experimental design which were challenging. The last two sections of the test required reading and interpreting maps and using reference materials for research.

I also administered the CogAT test to my third grader. This test is generally used to either identify gifted and talented students or to determine whether a student’s test scores don’t reflect their actual intelligence. The questions are more like logic puzzles of sorts. They want you to identify number and picture patterns and complete word analogies. The timing on this test is also quite short. You have to answer both accurately and fast.

We sent the test in for scoring and the results came back a little over a week later. The detail in the report is quite helpful. It shows you by concept where your child is weak or strong and how they performed on a grade equivalent basis. My third grader scored a composite equivalent to a child just starting in the 4th grade which is right exactly where we wanted her to be. We might have broken the test’s scoring ability for my kindergartner. By age, she should have taken the kindergarten test but since she had completed a first grade curriculum, we tested her at first grade level. She scored very well in every area except for that tricky inferential reading comprehension (which, given her age, was not surprising.) Her composite score was equivalent to a student almost halfway through the second grade.

In general, the Iowa test was a bigger challenge than what we were used to but I appreciate how the concepts being tested are good preparation for college-level thinking. Also, apparently the Iowa scores can be evaluated over time so that if you use the test every year you can get some additional data in your report about how your child has improved year to year. I am not sure what we will use for our testing this year but I would not be opposed to trying the Iowa test again.