BELFAST, Maine — Camden Hills Regional High School graduates more than 90 percent of its students, sends them off to places such as Harvard University and consistently beats the state’s testing standards in reading, math, writing and science.
It’s also a failing school in the eyes of the federal government, joining other so-called failing schools such as Orono High School, Bangor High School and Hampden Academy. And that is a label that education officials, including Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, believe to be a strong example of why the national school accountability system simply does not work.
Under the strictures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, less than 30 percent of schools in Maine are making adequate yearly progress as measured by student test scores and attendance, according to a report released Monday morning by the Maine Department of Education.
“I don’t like it. Who does?” said Superintendent William Shuttleworth of Five Town Community School District, which includes Camden Hills Regional High School. “When the average citizen first reads that, they say things must be troubled up there. But we’re one of the best schools in New England.”
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act may have been designed to promote school accountability and teacher success. But the controversial law has had other consequences, one of which is a credibility gap when it comes to the annual results, Bowen said Monday afternoon.
Although the new report indicates that Maine schools have gotten much worse over the last year, the commissioner said that the state’s poor showing reflects problems with the federal accountability system and not necessarily with schools or students.
“If you’re saying that only 30 percent of schools in this state are making adequate yearly progress, well, that just doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Bowen said. “We do need to have accountability. We do need to ensure that schools are getting kids to meet standards … But what you’re seeing all over the country is more and more schools considered to be failing, even if your school is making progress.”
Under No Child Left Behind, Maine schools must meet higher testing targets each year in order to make adequate yearly progress. The ultimate goal is to have 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Shuttleworth and others who decry the use of a single standardized test to prove proficiency say that some students may be poor test takers who intend to go on to a trade school or into the work force. Some may be English language learners. Others may have learning disabilities or be receiving special education.
“You have to have very high — but reasonable — standards of achievement,” the superintendent said.
The 2011-12 status of schools’ progress is based on last year’s test results and targets. The target in reading, for instance, required 78 percent of all high school juniors to show proficiency. That target was 7 percentage points higher than the previous year.
In math, the target was 12 percentage points higher, with 66 percent of juniors needing to show proficiency.
At Camden Hills Regional High School, 63 percent of students tested proficient or better in reading and 62 percent were proficient or better in math, according to high school assessment results released by the Maine Department of Education on Monday.
This year, only 184 schools out of 608 in the state are considered to be making adequate yearly progress. Last year, 44 percent of the state’s schools made adequate yearly progress.
The number of schools that have not met targets for at least two years in a row, or “continuous improvement priority schools,” has increased from 137 last year to 223 this year, according to the Maine Department of Education.
Bowen said that the testing system is “demoralizing to schools.”
“You are essentially making a major determination about the quality of the school based on how well kids do on an assessment instrument given at one point in time each year, and that’s it,” he said. “It’s unfair to draw such a sweeping conclusion about a school based on one instrument.”
Last month, President Barack Obama announced a waiver program for states to opt out of testing thresholds outlined in No Child Left Behind, which Bowen said was a welcome move.
“It’s going to allow us to move away from that one snapshot model to try to get a more comprehensive picture of how well schools are doing,” he said.
The president’s plan would allow new flexibility in how schools measure student, teacher and administrator achievement; how schools develop programs designed to improve student achievement; and how schools use federal funding for innovative programming. In order to obtain a waiver from No Child Left Behind standards, states must develop plans to meet those assessment and curriculum goals.
Shuttleworth said that would be time very well spent. Right now, Maine is the only state to use the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a gauge of how its 11th-graders are doing, according to the Maine Education Association website.
“That test was never designed to be a test given to everybody,” the superintendent said, adding that it was intended to filter out the students who are ready for college.
But now all juniors in Maine, regardless of whether they plan to go on to college or not, are asked to take the test.
“The expectation is that unless there is catastrophic reason not to test a child, they must all take it,” Shuttleworth said.
A school’s test results are compared from year to year to determine if it is making adequate yearly progress.
“Maine has the highest bar of any state in America, I’d say,” the superintendent said.
If that bar isn’t met, the school is penalized. Camden Hills Regional High School must allocate a certain amount of money toward improvements such as redesigning curriculum and training staff.
“It’s disingenuous,” Shuttleworth said. “I’d rather put that money into opportunities so that those kids can be competitive in the world of work.”
Commissioner Bowen said that the state won’t be using the SAT as a benchmark forever. By 2015, Maine should have adopted a new common assessment for its schools which will be used by every state.
“The standards will be the same and the assessment instrument will be the same,” Bowen said. “For once, you’ll be able to compare across states.”
Until then, he hopes the president’s waiver program will allow Maine to have a more successful way to hold schools accountable without needing a temporary replacement for the SAT.
“The testing has given us some valuable information,” Bowen said. “It is important that we’re closing achievement gaps. The data’s been important. I think it has done some good things. But with this adequate yearly progress measure, you’ve set an unreachable goal, and what it’s led to is tremendous frustration in the schools.”
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.