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Success on ISASP by Dr. Clayton Edwards

6 Jan 2020 2:51 PM | Wendy Weber (Administrator)

With all the fanfare leading up to ISASP, taking ISASP in April and May, and then waiting for the ISASP results, the process was draining on myself and the students. We didn’t do anything different to prepare for the assessment, but there were a lot of small events that brought on some unneeded anxiety. For example, I could tell my students were feeling the heat, as many teachers, including myself had mentioned a new and more expansive assessment throughout the school year to the students. When we took the test, students even had to deal with the Pearson person coming in and observing them testing. I have visitors from other districts come into my room regularly to check out what we are doing, so the students are used to it, but I can imagine as a student, that there is nothing like having a random stranger sit in during one of the more nerve wracking days of the year watching you like a hawk. I’ve got no problem with anyone having tattoos, but this guy had 100 of them, and my students commented that the tats were a little distracting! Students have plenty to worry about in their lives, and it was unfortunate that anything associated with ISASP stressed any of them out. The stress for myself and my students certainly wasn’t worth it, especially with the relative letdown that came when we took the test and realized that it really wasn’t a lot different than the old Iowa Assessments, and finally getting the results that didn’t help me to inform my teaching at all. All I learned is that my students did “well.”

Current 8th Grade (As 7th Graders With Me)
Proficient 66%
Advanced 22%
Not Yet Proficient 12% 
State Average 60/10/30

Current 9th Grade (As 8th Graders With Me)
Proficient 42%
Advanced 49%
Not Yet Proficient 9% 
State Average 61/11/28

Before you say that I have the best students already (I do love my students), both of these classes had been right at or below the state average as far back as the 6th grade. My students are improving because of what we do in class on a regular basis, and my high expectations for their learning. In this post, I will outline what I believe we do in class that makes us successful on ISASP and otherwise, and my strong recommendation for an appropriate amount of time to take the ISASP assessment, as I think this is one of the biggest misconceptions about ISASP that needs to be explained, especially to those who don’t have a mathematics education background.

I had a lot of curious people come up to me at a recent State Mathematics Leadership Team meeting and asked how my students did on the test. I let them know how well we did, and I got a lot of questions that made it sound like I had some sort of secret formula for success. Here was my “secret formula.” Avoid test prep. Avoid trying to dumb down material to work on “basics.” Avoid cramming before the test. None of these things work. Everything in this category promotes surface level learning. Students also sense when they are doing something that isn’t as rigorous as it probably should be, and worse, students know if you are giving them different material because they haven’t been successful with whatever everyone else is working on. If you think that is building confidence, it does the opposite and makes students feel worse about themselves. Special education students are no different, and I feel our special education population was successful on ISASP because I have similar expectations with them as I would any other student. 

Here are some of my “secrets” I do that I would contribute to our success on this test. I am not into telling anyone how to do things in their own classrooms. Teachers are unique and should be allowed to let their uniqueness shine through. This may look different to you in your classroom than it does for me, but if you would like to talk about how this looks in my classroom, I would be happy to discuss. 

Assess EVERYTHING, giving feedback to help make revisions

Anything my students do is assessed by me personally. I leave personal feedback on every assignment no matter how small or how large. I use class time to give verbal feedback as well. I want my students to have a good understanding of where they are, and I want to have a solid understanding myself of what my students know. A lot of the more informal ways of assessing don’t give me the information I need as a teacher to make informed decisions about my students’ mathematical understanding. Things like thumbs up/down, fist to five, completion points, and going over the homework as a whole class doesn't give me enough information about what a student really knows. Sure, assessing everything is time consuming, but it is worth it. Have you ever gotten to a final assessment and were surprised that your students did poorly? You may have been using one of those methods above. You should always know how your students will do on an assessment prior to the assessment because you have been giving feedback and assessing along the way. By the way, this has nothing to do with grades, just feedback. 


After I assess an assignment/assessment/task, it is always given back to a student to revise. The expectation is that revisions are made. I even work in time during class to allow for these revisions. It doesn’t make any sense to let a student move on who has only mastered 80% of an assignment. I can go over the answers with the class and pretend that the students thought through their mistakes in the 2 seconds I would give them, but I would be kidding myself. I allow for ample time for students to revise, and I will reassess after the revisions for full credit. Almost all of my students get 100% in my class because of this, and I absolutely think this is fine. I am only concerned that the content is understood and mastered. This is one reason we do so well on the ISASP assessment, or the NWEA MAP. We tie up any misconceptions right away. 

Tasks to promote productive struggle

Some people shy away from 3-Act type tasks because they may take up large chunks of time, and most of the ISASP questions are more general multiple choice, which wouldn’t fit the format of a 3-Act task. I will give you an opposite viewpoint. My students excel on long and grueling tests because they have multiple chances throughout the year to develop productive struggle. They are willing to stick with something and not give up. They know how to make adjustments and persevere through tough situations. Part of fostering productive struggle is through the teacher’s questioning techniques, which obviously isn’t happening during ISASP, but another part is students utilizing strategies that they have learned to help themselves move forward when stuck. How many students have you had who have started out on fire on one of these large tests working hard and reading each question, only to revert and finish the last 30 questions in four minutes? Working on tasks that require some productive struggle can help students stick with the test for the long haul, because they are used to doing this daily in class. 

Requiring justification for EVERYTHING

For anything my students do, they turn in accompanying work that gives me an idea of their level of understanding. For me, the point of assigning something is to see what they know, and if my students turn in pages of answers, I really don’t learn anything from that. I am looking for things like charts, tables, numbers with context, paragraphs, pictures, etc. I can diagnose misunderstandings much easier when students justify everything, and students feel better with their levels of understanding because they can explain it as well. 

We are a 1:1 school, and while we use a lot of computer programs, we also probably use more paper than any school in Iowa. We use common programs like IXL, Buzzmath, and Desmos, and while answer are often typed onto a screen, I always check the justification to go with these question and answer screens. If you don’t require justification, 1:1 mathematics can quickly turn into a button mashing event. And you wouldn’t believe how easily students can hit buttons on computer programs and eventually get something correct….

This helps with ISASP as my students are used to showing this level of understanding for everything, including a standardized test. My students each averaged 5 pieces of scratch paper each during ISASP. Having students justify answers slows down the thought process causing students to think deeper about whether an answer is correct instead of just picking what first pops into their heads. 

Longer time limits for assignments

Anyway you can build this into your classroom would be ideal. I have students that understand the mathematics at much different rates, and I have learned that it is silly to go with the one section of a book, and then move onto the next section the next day format. Some students will figure things out in a day, some will take three. When I bring this up, people always say that maybe the universal instruction needs to improve, and I wholeheartedly disagree with that opinion. When more time isn’t built in, oftentimes students move on without understanding. This happens multiple times over a student’s career putting them further behind each time until they are years behind. This takes the teacher being flexible and having multiple activities going on at once, but since I have changed to being more of a facilitator/questioner anyway, this works well. My students do well on ISASP because we have actually taken the time to make sure everyone understands each standard at a high level without moving on and leaving gaps in learning.

On the surface, ISASP appears to be untimed and very supportive of my students' everyday experience in class where they have time to think through and process problems and tasks. However, once I figured out how many questions were on the assessment, I knew I had to lobby for more time. The untimed moniker of ISASP was frustrating because it really wasn’t untimed. We had to finish the mathematics test in a day. While our district is very supportive of our needs as educators, it was probably hard for an administrator to understand that a middle school test could take an average of three hours to complete. Believe me, it sounds crazy just typing it. Couple that with administrators from our district hearing other districts say it took an average of 40 minutes for their students to take the mathematics portion on ISASP, and I could see how people could be skeptical about my three-hour time frame. 

Here is my thought process. In my classroom, my students are used to analyzing a problem, thinking about their next steps to solve the problem, solving the problem, and providing justification for each problem showing their understanding. To do this for a standard mathematics problem, it may take 2 to 4 minutes. That doesn’t sound at all far fetched to me since I live it everyday in my classroom. My students have a deep understanding of mathematics because that is what I encourage. That is what the expectation is. Rewind back to ISASP. 52 questions. Each question different than the next. 2 to 4 minutes per question mimicking what we would do in class. About 500 sheets of scratch paper later. There is my  average estimate of three hours to complete the test. If we averaged 40 minutes for the test, that would be less than a minute per question. I can only imagine the effort and thought going into each question would be low in that circumstance. 40 minutes seems like the more far-fetched option to me. Needless to say my middle school students were extremely successful. I am so proud of their efforts. The level of buy-in from my students was incredible. 

Reading this post you may think I love standardized assessments and think about them often. I actually despise them if we are being honest. They take a long time to finish, and the results that I get don’t help me make better decisions in my classroom. Unless I can have the test questions after the test is over, and I can keep the scratch paper to match up with each question so I can examine my students’ thinking, the results don’t help me. 

After participating with my role within ISASP the first year, I know I won’t be as stressed out the next time around. I plan on keeping things simple. I will continue to do the things that have worked in my classroom, that consequently translate to a deeper level of mathematical understanding, which will yield better results on these types of assessments. If I were to make a recommendation for ISASP, cut the number of questions in half. I think the state could still get the measurements they are looking for with far fewer questions, especially since the results received don’t help teachers make meaningful decisions anyway. Until the next iteration of ISASP, I will be saving my money to make an even bigger Cheez-It pyramid so the students’ will have plenty of testing fuel, for our ultra-fancy scratch paper pencils, and for the massive roll of paper it will take to cover all the walls in my room! I certainly will not be living for the next test, but rather the genuine excitement my students feel on a daily basis when a level of understanding is achieved!

The Iowa School Performance Profiles were recently released to the public, and our students got some outstanding news. The mathematics growth category is measured by matching students across the state by percentile on the old Iowa Assessment and comparing what they got on ISASP. For instance, all students in the state scoring at the 74th percentile on the old Iowa Assessments were compared using ISASP. We were very successful in those comparisons. We received the highest mathematics growth score in the state for both 7th grade (current 8th graders) and 8th grade (current freshman).


My students were extremely excited and proud to hear the news. There are a lot of middle schools in the state, and it is an honor to be considered the best of the best.

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