The Decorah School District has three key issues for the state Legislature.

At a special meeting last week, the Board met with District 28 State Senator Michael Breitbach and House District 55 State Representative Roger Thomas to discuss the concerns.

Decorah Superintendent Mike Haluska cited three areas, including assessments and achievement, school finances and school calendar.

"The Decorah Board of Education supports the adoption of a statewide assessment system that is aligned to the full range of content and the higher level of rigor found in the Iowa Core Curriculum," said Haluska.

Haluska and the Board share concerns that Iowa's standardized tests are ineffective, as they do not test students on what they are being taught as part of the state's curriculum.

Haluska said only about 33 percent of Iowa students are proficient on the national assessment. According to a recently released study by Harvard's Program on Education Policy, Iowa ranks last in the country for gains in student achievement over the past 20 years.

"Iowa has flatlined. We were high to begin with and we're not going anywhere," said Board President Melanie Tietz.

Haluska said the crux of the problem is that Iowa is not testing what teachers are supposed to be teaching. Iowa is the only state which still uses the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as part of its state accountability assessment.

"That's because the Iowa Testing Service that provides it (the test), lobbies at the state house and in the governor's office," said Haluska.

Haluska said instead of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the state should use the "Smarter Balanced" assessment as the state's assessment.

"In terms of the data it gives back, we could assess our programming and make the proper changes. It gives us so much more," said Haluska.

Haluska added the Smarter Balanced coalition involves 38 states, including "real leaders" like Massachusetts.

(The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is developing a system of valid, reliable, and fair next-generation assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards.)

"Iowa assessments do not give us enough in-depth feedback to make the necessary changes. Five years ago, there was a 30-percent correlation between the Iowa test and Iowa's core curriculum ... Today we're not assessing what we're supposed to be teaching," he said.

School finance

The second area the Decorah Board expressed concerns about was school finance.

Haluska explained adequate funding of schools is essential to the success of school reform.

Haluska said although Iowa students are second in the nation for ACT (college placement testing) scores, Iowa is on the low end of the scale for advanced placement participation and has dropped its national ranking.

"Iowa is now in the middle on most benchmarks with a large special education gap," said Haluska.

Haluska noted a sharp decline in student achievement, which correlates to the time when allowable growth was not longer set by formula. (Allowable growth refers to the amount by which state cost per pupil and district cost per pupil will increase from one budget year to the next.)

Haluska said allowable growth funds necessary cost increases of offering a good education and maintains the purchasing power of school districts relative to the economy.

He said more Iowa students are living in poverty. In recent years, Decorah's free and reduced school lunch recipients have risen from 18 to 26 percent. Statewide, that number is at 40 percent.

"School districts are on task to educate all students, but increasing student need requires resources and training," he said.

Haluska said on a per-pupil basis, Iowa is $970 under the U.S. average.

"That's a budget shortfall of $459 million in Iowa. That difference would mean an additional $1.6 million in Decorah. That much money changes the game dramatically," said Haluska.


Finally, the Board expressed concerns regarding the school calendar.

In recent years, a number of districts have lobbied for later start-dates, citing tourism and family vacations as a reason to start later in the fall and continue classes after Memorial Day.

In February, the Board voted to continue starting the school year in mid-August, despite a local petition from parents to move the date by about a week.

"The needs of each school district are distinctly different. Our job is not tourism - it's educating our youth," said Haluska.

Haluska said heat is as much an issue in early September as in mid-late August, and the 4-H events at the state fair conclude the day before school begins.

He added the Decorah staff supports the early start and early end dates.

"Instruction past Memorial Day is extremely difficult ... instruction becomes more about classroom management. By mid-May, students become more involved in summer activities, their nights become longer, and sleep becomes shorter. Homework completion after this date does not get done on a consistent basis," said a written statement from Principal Leona Hoth.

Haluska added if school went later in the spring, local vacation bible school and Park/Rec programs would have to be pushed back, and a late start to summer vacation would adversely affect pool revenue.

He said in addition to the summer athletic calendar being affected, academics would suffer.

"Student achievement increases when we begin school during the third week of August, and we see increased scores on AP exams and the ACT.

"This is why local control is so important," he concluded.