BANGOR, Maine — A unique nationwide study of student performance found that Maine is one of only 13 states making significant progress in the area of mathematics. Reading scores are stagnant in Maine and many other states, prompting the state’s education commissioner to call for an overhaul of the century-old learning system.
The 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress data are unique, according to the Department of Education, because they show an apples-to-apples comparison between Maine and the other states. The program, which released its nationwide findings Tuesday, relied on testing of fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading.
Maine fared well in most categories compared with other states, but as a whole students in the U.S. have not improved in math and reading in several years.
Maine’s fourth-graders had an average math score of 244 on the NAEP test, which was conducted early this year, compared with the national average of 240. About 45 percent of those students were rated as proficient, compared with 40 percent nationally. In reading, the state’s fourth-graders scored 222, barely above the national average of 220. While the score was virtually the same as it was two years ago, the data showed that reading proficiency has been eroding slowly since 1992, when the state scored 227.
In math, 39 percent of Maine’s eighth-graders showed proficiency, which is a 4 percentage point increase since 2009. They scored 289, compared with the national average of 283. In reading, the eighth-graders beat the national average by six points but have not improved measurably since 1998.
Though he was encouraged by Maine eighth-graders’ showing in math, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the other findings in Tuesday’s report serve as notice that Maine’s education system needs an overhaul.
“Maine has continued to show no progress in reading for far too many years,” Bowen said in a press release. “There is compelling scientific research about how kids learn to read, but we are not applying those methods universally.”
According to Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin, Bowen and others are in the midst of developing a strategic plan for an overhaul of Maine’s education system which is due for completion in the coming months. The plan will address everything from how student achievement is measured to how teachers are trained to the very structure of what Connerty-Marin said is an education system that is a century in obsolescence.
“We’re talking about clear and rigorous standards, building a system based on the needs of students rather than the structures we adults are familiar with and giving teachers the training, resources and accountability they need to be effective,” said Bowen.
Connerty-Marin said a major component in the strategic plan will be moving toward an education system that tailors unique experiences for individual students as opposed to expecting every student to take the same classes and fulfill the same requirements for graduation.
“Our education system was literally designed by a committee of 10 back in about 1890,” said Connerty-Marin. “It was laid out to prepare students for a very different society in which only a handful of students would continue to higher education. A student-centered system looks at the needs of the student in every aspect.”
Asked what that might look like, Connerty-Marin said it could mean that more students will be taught subjects such as math and science through internships or partnerships with the private sector instead of in traditional classrooms.
“Why should a student spend four years sitting in math classes when they’ve gotten the same education through an internship or special program?” he said.
In recent speeches to educators, Bowen has challenged some of education’s most fundamental assumptions — such as the concept of passing and failing grades — according to text of the speeches on the Department of Education website.
“Kids coming out of school today can’t think and don’t know how to solve problems,” said Bowen, summarizing research by author Tony Wagner, a Harvard researcher who spoke recently to a group of Maine educators. “They need step-by-step directions to do anything. They can’t communicate effectively. They don’t think creatively. They are risk-averse because they come out of an educational system where … we give you lower grades for making mistakes. So in short, the system we have isn’t getting the job done.”
Though the challenges are plenty, the NEAP data released Tuesday reaffirmed a well-known barrier to student achievement that is no secret to any educator: socioeconomics. Students who receive free- and reduced-cost lunches — thresholds which NEAP used to make assumptions about family income — consistently scored far lower than other students.
Connerty-Marin said this is among the most daunting challenges facing schools. Some 46 percent of Maine fourth-graders receive free or reduced lunch, along with 41 percent of students in grade eight. Of all the eighth-graders who showed proficiency in math, for example, only 29 percent of them receives free or reduced lunch.
“It’s really hard to help kids succeed in school if they’re hungry or if their parents can’t read or understand the math homework,” said Connerty-Marin. “There are just a host of issues that make it difficult to educate a kid like that.”