2015-09-18 / Front Page

Local students score big on standardized testing

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

With the format of Maine’s annual testing of public school students being a one-and-done affair, it’s hard to make much of the results. Still, one thing is clear, RSU 21 students performed much better than their peers statewide.

In test results released by the Maine Department of Education Thursday, Sept. 10, fewer than half of all students in Maine (48 percent) met or exceeded grade-level literacy standards on the test, designed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC), a multi-state group that designs automated testing of the national Common Core curriculum.

Meanwhile, only 36 percent of Maine students met the Common Core standards in math. Results in science, which still use the Maine Education Assessment test, were better, with 61 percent of all students making the grade.

Meanwhile, in RSU 21, results in literacy ranged from 61.7 percent proficient at Kennebunk High School, to 82.1 percent meeting or exceeding standards at the Sea Road School. Results were lower in math, ranging from 29.7 percent proficient at KHS (the only area where local results dipped below the statewide average) to 75.8 percent profi- ciency at Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

The MEA test in science is only administered in grades 5, 8, and 11, as opposed to the SBAC, given to Grades 3-8 and 11. On that test, results varied from the low at KHS, where 55.7 percent of 11th-graders met or exceeded standards, to the high posted at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, where 86 percent of eighth-graders proved they had what it takes to meet the testing goals.

“We are quite pleased with our SBAC and MEA results overall,” Superintendent Katie Hawes said Monday via email. “Since this was a new test both in format and in content, all districts in Maine were unsure what to expect for results. Our administrative team discussed a goal to be at least 10 percent above the state average. We far surpassed that in all but one area.”

Hawes pointed out that while KHS juniors did underperform the statewide average of all grades in math, they when counting only 11th-graders. Meanwhile, the Sea Road School posted the second-highest literacy score of all 595 elementary schools tested in Maine.

“We were only surpassed by Yarmouth Elementary School,” Hawes said. “This has created a bit of a friendly competition, since I taught there for nine years and the current superintendent there, Andrew Dolloff, is a former RSU 21 superintendent and good friend.”

Also, of note, between 95 and 99 percent of students at each RSU 21 school took the SBAC test this past April, while between 97 and 100 percent participated in the MEA science test in May.

That’s important because of a Catch-22 involving standardized testing. While parents have a right to opt their children out of the tests, federal law under the No Child Left Behind Act requires that at least 95 percent of all students take a standardized test, in hopes of measuring teacher performance. The U.S. Department of Education has said federal subsidy dollars could be at risk if that threshold is not met.

Earlier this year, that became an issue when some parents complained RSU 21 failed to properly advise them of their right to withhold their children from the testing. A letter sent out by Hawes in April advised parents of the 95 percent participation requirement, but not of the ability to “opt-out.” Instead, the letter only advised parents to contact building principals with questions, while a special “opt-out” form was quietly dispensed with.

Several mothers complained, first at an April 15 meeting of the school board’s policy committee, then at the full board meeting April 21. The uproar prompted a rewrite of Hawes’ letter, approved at the May 4 board meeting, although that revision failed to satisfy some, who noted the new letter still contained no overt mention of an opt-out option.

The SBAC test was said to take seven hours to administer. It replaced both the SAT, previously used to measure achievement among high school juniors, and the New England Common Assessment Program, given to lower grades.

Those tests had been pencil-and-paper affairs, generally with multiple-choice answers. The SBAC test, by contrast, was done entirely on computer, with students compelled to work through multi-layered problems using graphs and other tools. The idea was to force students to think critically, in keeping with the new Common Core standards recently adopted into the Maine Learning Results requirements for high school graduation. Those standards attempt to move students away from rote memorization and into a realm in which they demonstrate reasoning skills, which, it is felt, will better prepare them for college and, eventually, the modern workforce. In other words, students had to show they could work through a problem, not just that they knew, or could successfully guess, the answer.

“This was a huge challenge for Maine schools, and they met it with remarkable skill,” Maine Department of Education Acting Director Tom Desjardin said in a release accompanying the testing results. “The shift to a computerized assessment from paper and pencil was difficult enough, but the shift to new standards and a more rigorous assessment made this year’s effort an unusually difficult task.”

In May, the state Legislature rejected a bill that would have forced school districts to tell parents clearly and unequivocally that their children do not have to take a standardized test. However, that didn’t mean legislators were in love with the SBAC model. Despite the reported cost to implement the SBAC test in Maine — an estimate that ranges from $2.7 million to $3.5 million, depending on the source — the Legislature voted in June to scrap it.

School districts statewide complained the SBAC test was too long, the computer program was not user friendly, some questions were poorly worded, and incorrect tests were administered in some districts. Since testing this past spring, Connecticut and Missouri have joined Maine in dropping out of the SBAC.

But for many parents, there were more compelling reasons to object to the test — it was just too hard, particularly on 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 one parent, Karlene Frost, at the May 5 school board meeting in RSU 21. Frost called the SBAC 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,” she said.

Other parents balked because the new test contained elements of Common Core – an initiative that seeks to maintain equal educational standards across all 39 participating states.

The result of all that kickback was that while RSU 21 maintained the mandated 95 percent participation rate, a large swath of students simply sat out the test in other area districts, most notably at the high school level.

At Cape Elizabeth High School, just 30 percent of students took the SBAC math test, while slightly more, 31.3 percent, sat for the literacy version. At Gorham High School, participation dropped below 20 percent for literacy and 16 percent for math. And, at Yarmouth High School, fewer than 10 percent of students bothered to take either test.

In a press release circulated Sept. 11, the day after the state released testing data, the Maine Education Association, the labor union that represents most Maine teachers, downplayed the scores in particular, and the value of standardized testing in general.

“Our students are more than a test score — a test score is just one piece of the puzzle,” MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley said. “As experts in educational practice, we know the current system of standardized tests does not provide educators or students with the feedback any of us need to promote the success and learning of students.”

Locally, however, Hawes says RSU 21 staffers will take a hard look at the results, despite the fact that scores cannot be compared to last year’s annual testing results, due to the vast differences in testing methods, and the fact that an entirely new test will be given in 2016.

“Our next steps are to dig deeper into our results during an administrative team meeting later this month in order to understand where our strengths and needs fall,” Hawes said. “Then each (building) administrator will set a school-wide goal for the coming year.”

On the plus side for the MEA and other public school advocates, the imminent switch to a third statewide test in as many years means the controversial letter grades given to schools, initiated by Gov. Paul LePage and put on hold until DOE has two years of comparable data, will be on hiatus for at least one more season.

As for what next year’s test might look like, that remains to be seen.

The Maine DOE this past week issued a request for proposals to solicit offers from companies willing to design a new statewide assessment test. Bids are due to the state by Sept. 29.

After review by a special panel, the state is scheduled to open negotiations with a potential vendor by the end of October, kicking off a timeline to statewide testing of students next spring. All that is known at this point, DOE officials have said, is that the new test will again be computerized and, because it centers on the profi- ciency-based standards found in Maine Learning Results, it will continue to contain elements of Common Core.

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