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University of Iowa News Release


Nov. 5, 2007

Ho, Dunbar garner grant to explore implications of educational growth models

With so much riding on test scores, it may come as a surprise that only a handful of state tests actually track student learning.

Two professors in the University of Iowa College of Education, Andrew Ho (left) and Stephen Dunbar (right), are studying these tests and how they measure student growth, hoping that this will lead to wiser educational policies. They are developing an improved framework for quantifying this growth thanks to a $273,844, two-year grant from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education. The grant project began this fall and will continue through August 2009.

"The quantification of student learning is at the heart of current educational policies, yet our current perspectives on growth statistics is surprisingly narrow and makes many hidden assumptions," said Ho, an assistant professor in the UI College of Education. Ho and Dunbar, grant co-principle investigators and experts in educational assessment, are seeking to address a simple question with their research project: how does one quantify student learning?

The federal No Child Left Behind Act is currently up for revision and reauthorization, and many policy makers are turning to "growth models" as a way to improve school accountability and reorient the controversial act, Ho said.

"Growth models track individual student learning over time, allowing schools to receive credit where credit is due: for significant score gains for low-scoring students who are on a clear path towards proficiency," Ho said.

Iowa is one of nine states currently selected as part of a Growth Model Pilot Program by the federal government.

"Iowa is already at the cutting edge of education policy," Ho said. "As the stakes on growth statistics rise, we hope that our framework will allow policymakers and practitioners to better quantify and explain degrees of student learning.

"If both a low-scoring student and a high-scoring student gain 20 points in a year, which student has learned more?" Ho added. "Our grant examines how addressing these questions has an impact on high-stakes educational policy. These decisions are necessarily judgmental and often unspoken. We hope to develop an improved framework that will be more upfront about all the usually hidden complexities of educational measurement."

Both Ho and Dunbar hope to make significant contributions to the field of educational statistics thanks to the work done through the grant.

"This research is particularly enjoyable because we are advancing our understanding of statistics that are visible to everyone," Ho said. "Summaries of student learning make headlines, shape policies, and change our impressions of the efficacy of public education. The stakes are high."

Dunbar said that UI is in an ideal position to head this kind of research because it's the only university that maintains an active educational testing program as an academic unit, the College of Education-based Iowa Testing Programs (ITP).

"Iowa Testing Programs has, from its beginnings, focused on the measurement and reporting of student learning to the teachers, parents and schools of Iowa," Dunbar said. "As federal education policies change, we continue to be focused on this goal, and our grant work is in line with that mission. Our current research benefits greatly from the resources and expertise here at ITP, particularly due to a faculty and staff that has had a history of investment with student learning in Iowa dating back to the 1930s."

Ultimately, both Dunbar and Ho hope to make both theoretical and practical contributions to the field of educational assessment by publishing in journals and releasing reports.

"We hope that our reports in particular are widely read by policy-makers and practitioners, so an improved understanding of the complexity of student growth statistics may eventually lead to improved educational policies," Ho said.

Dunbar is the director of the Iowa Testing Programs and a professor in the Educational Measurement and Statistics Program in the Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations in the College of Education.

Ho, who has been at the UI since August 2005, holds a joint appointment in ITP and the UI College of Education's Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations.

Founded in 1872, the University of Iowa College of Education was the nation's first permanent college-level department of education. Since then, the college has gained an international reputation of excellence in programs as diverse as Rehabilitation Counseling, Testing and Measurement, Counseling Psychology, Elementary and Secondary Teacher Education and Higher Education Administration. The College of Education is also home to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Andrew Ho, Iowa Testing Programs, 319-335-6259,; Stephen Dunbar, Iowa Testing Programs, 319-335-5561,; Lois J. Gray, University News Services, 319-384-0077,