2015-04-10 / Front Page

Parents concerned about testing

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — While some parents in RSU 21 are upset they were not told about their right to opt-out of standardized testing for their children, members of the school board opted-in to a discussion on the topic Monday, after being told the issue would first be debated on the subcommittee level.

At the March 6 meeting of the RSU 21 Board of Directors, three parents said they had concerns about a March 9 letter circulated by Superintendent-elect Kathryn Hawes.

That note, distributed by school principals, advises parents that annual administration of the Maine Education Assessment test will take place May 16-24. It also says the testing, required under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, will generate confi- dential information about each student’s “strengths and needs.” It further advises 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 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.

However, what truly concerned the parents was what the letter did not say — namely that much of the SBAC test reportedly includes material from the Common Core, an initiative which seeks to maintain equal educational standards across all 39 participating U.S. states.

“From my perspective, what I’m really looking for is to understand how Common Core got into our system and how we can get it out,” said Lana Wescott, who has a child at Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

Wescott recalled the frustration her child has experienced with Common Core’s “rigorous” methodology of instruction, complaining that much of it is beyond adults as well.

“This stuff is impossible to understand,” she said.

However, the concern for Lisa Kendrick, who has children at Kennebunk Elementary School and the Sea Road School, was that the new test is apparently used to evaluate teachers, as well as students.

That should have been noted in the March 9 letter, she said.

However, the worst transgression in the Hawes letter for all concerned was that it makes no mention of the fact that parents can opt-out of standardized testing for their children.

Kendrick pointed out that a bill currently before the state legislature, LD 695, sponsored by Rep. Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) and Sen. Nate Libby (D-Androscoggin), would compel school districts to advise parents of their opt-out rights.

“Does our school district really need legislation to do the right thing?” she asked.

“It appears, and it feels to parents, that information is being withheld. That feels the same as lying,” said a third parent, Joy Conant.

“Parents want to make the best decision for their child, not necessarily the district,” she said. “There are a lot of parents who are very concerned about Common Core and what’s coming down the pike and the only way people learned they had the opportunity to opt out was from another parent. It was not from the district. It was not from the schools.”

Within the last week, Hawes has circulated a second missive, asking parents to sign an opt-out form if they choose to remove their children from the upcoming test. Those signed forms, Hawes said at Monday’s meeting, will help RSU 21 obtain a waiver from the Department of Education if enough children are pulled to drop participation below 95 percent of any school’s student population.

That threshold was given in the second Hawes letter, which noted that failure to meet it could contribute to landing any school on the NCLB’s list of Continuous Improvement Priority Schools. Sanctions under a CIPS classification can include loss of federal funding and even lead to punitive measures, including forced replacement of administrators, as happened last year at an elementary school in South Portland.

However, the second opt-out form contained what school board member Jeffry Cole of Kennebunk called “onerous language,” with an “implied threat” of harsh penalties for the district if parents do choose to take advantage of their opt-out rights.

Initially, school board Chairman Maureen King, of Kennebunkport, shut down debate by saying she had directed the parent’s concern to the April 15 meeting of the board’s policy subcommittee. The full school board would then consider the issue at its April 27 meeting, she said.

“Quite frankly I think it behooves the board to get all the information,” she said, pointing out that many school board members had not seen the opt-out form, or, in some cases, the March 9 letter, until about three hours before Monday’s meeting.

“I really have no idea what’s going on,” Kennebunk Director Matthew Fadiman admitted.

However, a number of school board members, including Cole and Kennebunk Director Frank Drigotas, still wanted to discuss the issue.

King initially resisted that request, saying as the regular school board meeting was winding down, a previously scheduled public hearing on the 2015-2016 school budget was slated to start in less than seven minutes.

“If we can spend even seven minutes discussing something that’s of concern to the public, why would we not do that?” Drigotas asked.

“You’ve got six minutes — go,” said King.

The board ended up taking 11 minutes to thresh out the matter. While there was no attempt to solve the problem in that time frame, several directors did say they could understand the parental concern.

“When you read that letter, you really don’t get the impression that you have the ability to opt out,” said Kennebunk Director Mike Mosher. “I’m aware of the financial considerations there, but I don’t think that can stop us from making the parents aware of all of their options.”

In fact, similar letters to parents from the Wells and Cape Elizabeth school departments, presented by the parents, make implicit mention of the opt-out ability.

“We can certainly choose do that if the board would like to direct us to do so,” Hawes said.

She then defended her communications, claiming praise from DOE for having gone “above and beyond.”

“We do not even need to send a letter about testing to families,” she said.

“I would think you would want to do that,” said Kendrick.

“Well, there’s still time to opt out,” said King. “We haven’t shut anyone off from that process.”

King said parents have been invited to the policy committee meeting, which is open to the public. It will be held at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 15, at Kennebunk Elementary School.

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