University of Iowa education researchers are studying state tests, like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, to determine if there’s a better way to be gauging a student’s learning. Andrew Ho, a professor of education at the U-of-I, says under the current “No Child Left Behind” parameters, schools get credit for students who are above a certain passing score.

Ho says: “But there’s no attention paid currently to students who are achieving very low but make significant gains that may not pass that passing score. They can make incredible gains but not receive credit for it. Likewise, students who are achieving at a very high level may decline substantially over time but as long as they happen to be over that passing score, schools still receive credit for those students.”

Ho says so-called “growth models” are a way to get a better sense of how students are learning over time instead of looking at whether they’re just making a passing score. He says most tests are set up to tell you how a student is performing but there’s no sense of how that changes over time.

“You can be at the 50th percentile one year and at the 50th percentile the next year and have you changed? Have you learned anything? You’re the same with respect to other people but have you moved forward or have you stepped back? The tests that can actually talk about how students have changed are few and far between because it’s a hard thing to do,” he says.

So much importance is given to test scores, but Ho says it’ll surprise many people to hear that only a few tests actually track student learning. “It wouldn’t require a substantial change to some tests but it would require a substantial change in the current policy we have set up that are myopically focused on an idea of proficiency. We should instead be focused on how our proficiencies change over time,” Ho says. He says the U-of-I is studying a host of state tests and how they do — or don’t — measure student growth, with the ultimate goal of bringing wiser educational policies. Ho’s team is working under a two-year, $274,000 grant from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.