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Maine schools prepare for new, more rigorous tests that will be used next year

Posted March 18, 2014, at 1:38 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2014, at 6:30 p.m.

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Gary Gonyar, principal of William S. Cohen School in Bangor.
Gary Gonyar, principal of William S. Cohen School in Bangor. Buy Photo
Gary Gonyar, principal of William S. Cohen School in Bangor.
Gary Gonyar, principal of William S. Cohen School in Bangor. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — The standardized tests Maine students take each year to measure what they’ve learned are about to get tougher. Next year, as part of a national effort to raise standards, students will take the exams on a computer and will have to answer complex questions, often with written explanations, to show their understanding of reading, writing and math.

Public schools in 45 states across the country and Washington, D.C., are at varying stages of readiness for the Common Core, a set of educational standards that, in many cases, will make school more rigorous for students. The implementation of these standards has been part of a larger, national debate about whether schools are preparing students for the 21st century.

In Maine, teachers and administrators say they are embracing the high standards that the Common Core demands, but some are wary of how students will be tested.

“This new assessment is A, very different, and B, very difficult,” Mary Girard, director of curriculum at Regional School Unit 22, which serves the Hampden area, told the district’s school board last month.

Though Maine teachers feel they have always been pushing students toward the higher-level thinking skills that are now the expectation, such as how to support an argument in an essay with specific examples or how to apply multiple math functions to a single word problem, now students will have to show they have mastered those skills on a standardized test.

“What is tough is that it’s always been there but not always demanded of the kids when tested,” said Roland Dube, a math teacher at the William S. Cohen School in Bangor.

Next year will be the first year students in grades three through eight and grade 11, and possibly other grades, will be tested on the Common Core in math and English language arts. The NECAP has been used to test grades three through eight in those subjects since 2009 and the SAT has been used in grade 11 since 2006, but those tests will give way to a new, yet-to-be identified assessment.

The new tests will be developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of 26 states, including Maine, that have agreed to work together to create an assessment that can test students on the Common Core.

The tests will be taken once at the end of the school year on the computer and will adapt to the test-taker’s ability, meaning if a student gets a question wrong, the next question will be easier. Some questions will have more than one correct answer and students will have to select all the right responses to get full credit. Other questions, on both the reading and the math tests, will ask students to write answers in full sentences.

Maine teachers have been able to take a sample test online that is similar to what the actual tests will look like.

The Common Core became the law in Maine in 2011 when the Maine Learning Results were updated so that they included the new standards. Students have to take the statewide exams, but schools have leeway in terms of how they want to work toward meeting the standards.

“We see the Common Core as supporting the focus we’ve already identified,” said David Galin, chief academic officer at the Portland School Department.

He said “the idea that students should be paying more attention to nonfiction texts [and] should be studying math topics deeply” are some examples of those focus areas.

Bangor school department teachers said the difference between teaching pre- and post- Common Core is that under the Common Core, it’s important for students to be able to describe what they can do.

“To me, one of the best ways to help my kids tackle the Common Core … is to recognize the task you’re being asked to do,” said Trisha McPhee, an English language arts teacher at the Doughty School, a middle school in Bangor.

For example, if a student is asked to describe a character who appears in a passage on the English test, they are being asked to do a very specific task. Teachers must now not only teach their students how to describe, but also to recognize that when they see the word describe in this context, that means they have to identify a character trait and give examples that explain how they know the character in question demonstrates that trait.

It’s about “helping kids to understand when to pull the skills they’ve learned,” said McPhee, “helping them be as aware as I am that the master plan is to help them learn when to apply [their skills].”

School administrators also said that frequent changes made at the state level to the tests and standards can be frustrating.

“We’re kind of shooting at a moving target sometimes,” said Gary Gonyar, principal of the William S. Cohen School, a middle school in Bangor.

“You just can’t chase the test,” said Tim Babcock, principal of Fruit Street School in Bangor, which serves kindergarten through third grade. “They just change so often.”

But the test results are increasingly high stakes in Maine. The are used to determine each school’s grade on its report card, a new system of rating schools by giving them a letter grade that was rolled out last year by the LePage administration.

“I’m not going to tell you they’re not important,” Gonyar said of the new tests. “They are.”

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