2015-05-08 / Community

Accusations fly at school board meeting

Critics claim school officials hiding fact children can optout of standardized testing
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Nearly a month after being accused of misleading the public by not making it clear parents can opt-out of standardized testing for their children, the RSU 21 Board of Directors has approved a new letter to announce upcoming test dates.

That draft, approved at the May 5 school board meeting, catches RSU 21 between the rock of federal testing requirements, which mandate a minimum participation rate among students, and the hard place of a bill currently before the state Legislature, which would compel school districts to advise parents of their right to pull children out of federal tests.

Parental ire first arose at the April 6 school board meeting when three mothers said they had concerns about a March 9 letter circulated by Superintendent-elect Dr. Kathryn Hawes.7 Points Mentioned

That note, distributed by school principals, told parents annual administration of the Maine Education Assessment test will take place May 16-24. It also said the testing, required under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, will generate confidential information about each student’s “strengths and needs.” It further advised that this year’s test is completely revised in the areas of literacy and math for all participating grades.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) developed the new test, which reportedly takes seven hours to complete. It replaces both the SAT, previously used to measure achievement among high school juniors for NCLB purposes, and the New England Common Assessment Program, given to lower grades.

What the letter did not say, however, was that parents can decline to have their children participate in the testing. The letter only mentioned that federal law requires a 95 percent participation rate among students. Failure to meet that requirement can cause schools to fall onto the fed’s list of Continuing Improvement Priority Schools. Landing on the CIPS list can lead to eventual loss of state and federal subsidies and even such corrective measures as forced removal of school staff and administrators.

Still, some parents prefer not to have their children tested, either because the new test contains elements of Common Core – an initiative that seeks to maintain equal educational standards across all 39 participating states – or because the test is deemed too difficult for special needs students.

“Forcing them to take a test you know they are going to fail only frustrates them and turns them away from learning,” said Karlene Frost, who called the test “mental torture” for her son.

“It only tells you what you already know, that they are special needs and you need funding to help them. That is a flawed system,” Frost said.

Following an April 15 meeting of the school board’s policy committee, to which concerned parents were invited, the full board addressed the issue again at its April 27 session.

After ordering an amendment to the advisory letter, the board voted 8-1 at its May 4 meeting to support the new version. Kennebunk Director Jeffrey Cole cast the lone dissenting vote, while three members were absent from the meeting, including Brad Huot and Frank Drigotas of Kennebunk and Susan Sinnott Curran of Arundel.

Still, the do-over failed to satisfy some parents, and at least one school board member. That’s because the lone amendment is the addition of a single sentence which advises parents with questions about the upcoming test to contact either their school principal or Hawes. That was deemed only a minor adjustment from the first letter, which offered up principals as a point of contact.

Unstated in the letter is that parents no longer are required to fill out a so-called “opt-out form” if they do not want their child or children to take the new Smarter Balance test.

“You just call your child’s principal and have a discussion with them,” said school board Chairman Maureen King.

That seemed to satisfy most board members.

“No official can govern to the standard of making everybody absolutely happy,” said Kennebunkport Director Bob Domine. “I have every confidence that if somebody were to have such a meeting the appropriate things would happen.

“I would just like to say I thank the community for coming out these past few weeks,” agreed Matthew Fadiman, who represents Kennebunk on the school board.

“I for one think we listened and listened well,” he said. “Sometimes the simplest things are the most important.”

Still, not everyone was on board with the board majority.

“I think I would respectfully disagree only because I don’t think it goes as far as it should to tell parents that they do have that option to opt out,” said Cole, adding he planned to vote against the new draft.

“OK, that is your option,” King said.

Meanwhile Lisa Kendrick, who has children at Kennebunk Elementary School and the Sea Road School and has been one of the more vocal critics of the RSU’s testing notification, remained unimpressed with its efforts.

“I’m just really disappointed,” she said. “I believe this district can provide parents with the same quality and quantity of information that other districts provide. It feels like you should want to do more. I hope that in the future when these kinds of forms are put together more time and attention is put into them.”

But if Kendrick seemed resigned to the controversy having run its course, Frost was still up to bat and taking swings, accusing the district of being deceitful.

“The school was leading me to believe I had no choice (but to consent to the testing),” she said. “The only reason my son was able to opt out is because he is special needs. But still, I was told, do not make this public.

“Why am I being told not to make public that parents have rights? Why is that a problem?” she asked, without drawing an answer.

Frost also referred to Hawes’ statements at previous meetings, when she claimed her letter met all requirements set forth by the Maine Department of Education.

“We have a right to know and you should take it a step further than DOE and tell us what our rights are,” she said.

But the real blame, said King, belongs elsewhere.

“I appreciate your anger with us. However, it’s not us that makes the law,” she said. “If you want to change this, the Legislature is the place to do it. They are the ones who tell us what we can and cannot do.”

King advised Frost and other parents to attend a May 11 public hearing in Augusta on LD 695. Entitled, “An Act To Empower Parents in the Education of Their Children by Allowing an Opt-out from Standardized Assessments,” the bill would require that school districts inform parents of the rights they already have to pull their children out of testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It also bars the state from penalizing school districts when students opt-out.

“As the mother of three kids, I know how much time these tests now take and about the stress and anxiety high-stakes testing causes for teachers, educators, parents and students,” said state Rep. Sara Gideon (D-Freeport), who sponsored the bill.

“I really want Maine to have a conversation about the sheer number of tests our kids are taking, the effectiveness of these tests and whether we’re using these tests in the best way to improve education for our kids,” Gideon said.

However, Frost refused to let King deflect responsibility, saying the conversation Gideon calls for should happen on the local level.

“You are our local school board,” she said. “You should be looking out for our best interests and our children’s best interests. There is no law preventing you from telling us what our rights are.

“Sorry,” Frost said, “but that is on your shoulders.”

Still, King said RSU 21 officials are only following directives from DOE. Additionally, she noted, until LD 695 or something like it passes, current law is not as cut and dried as many presume.

“We were really told we should not be encouraging people to opt-out,” she said. “And there is no language about opting out (in current law). It only says every student shall be given the opportunity to take the test.”

Cole closed debate by imploring his follow board members to empathize with the parents. The bottom line, he said, is that school board policy compels them to act only with “the best interests of the child” in mind.

“You can’t do that by disrespecting the rights of the parents,” he said.

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