AUGUSTA, Maine — School consolidation is on track to meet state expectations, and the upset over last year’s eighth-grade writing test is unlikely to happen again.
That was the message Department of Education Commissioner Susan A. Gendron delivered Wednesday to the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. Gendron briefed members on both issues during a special work session.
Gendron reported that alternate reorganization plans for 33 existing regional school units already had been approved by the department, with another about to be. In addition, three have been approved by the commissioner and their communities’ voters and another 12 have been approved by the department and are awaiting voter approval in November.
Another seven districts are “very close to approval,” Gendron said, and another 20 districts have reorganization plans in progress that likely will be presented to the voters sometime after the November election but before the Jan. 31, 2009, deadline.
Gendron noted that 10 school units have failed to comply with the reorganization law, although they continue to engage in discussions with the department. She said some of those units are smaller than the 1,000 students allowed under the law while others are being urged to consider mergers with neighboring towns to expand the population of the district.
“They do not have approved plans,” Gendron said, “but they are continuing to work with their communities.”
Add all of the regional school units to the dozen island and tribal schools that were exempt from having to file a reorganization plan — although they must show ways to save money without adversely affecting instructional programming — and the department is close to reaching its goal of reducing the number of school units from 290 to 80.
“We are on target for 80 units,” Gendron said.
Rep. Patricia B. Sutherland, D-Chapman, commended the department for its reorganization work. The plan, approved earlier this year, was designed not only to reduce the cost of administering the state’s schools but also to produce $36.5 million in savings. The new districts must be in place by June 2009.
“This is very good,” Sutherland said of Gendron’s briefing. “I’m glad it has gone as far as it has, things are really moving.”
Gendron told the committee she planned to provide it with a more detailed report on consolidation in November and pledged to make members aware in advance of any proposed changes to the law that still may be required to smooth out any rough edges.
As to the troubled writing test administered to the state’s 12,000 eighth-graders last year, Gendron said the results were thrown out when scores revealed that 78 percent of those taking the test failed. She said the pupils reacted to the test’s essay question with anger or disgust instead of submitting a reasoned argument to the “prompt” asking them to discuss the “impact of television” on their learning.
Gendron said the prompt was one of eight “persuasive essay” questions pilot-tested by 1,200 eighth-graders in 2006. Those students scored in the 48th percentile on three of the questions and the one on television was selected to be used in 2007. Instead of providing essays comparable to those submitted the year before, last year’s students gave “emotional reactions” and “did not defend their answer,” Gendron said.
She said the department has since conducted “several major powwows” with Measured Progress, its testing company, and was contemplating whether the state should use multiple questions in the future. She said the state had used a single question since it began testing writing more than two decades ago.
“This was a very strong lesson for us,” Gendron admitted.
Also Wednesday, the committee voted to approve a $250,000 contract and work plan for the Maine Education Policy Research Institute to conduct a number of research projects dealing with education policy. Members agreed on the matter only after persuading MEPRI, which is an adjunct of the University of Maine System, to create a detailed “road map” to guiding the committee on how to investigate perceived inequalities in the Essential Programs and Services and other school subsidy requirements.
The committee’s Senate chairman, Peter Bowman, D-Kittery, described EPS as a “hot-button issue that takes a lot of flak” from many constituents and predicted that the matter would come up again and again when the 124th Legislature meets next year.
“The concern is we’re not getting ahead of the curve,” he said.