The union that represents most of Maine’s 15,000 public school teachers is tempering its support for the Common Core state standards that Maine schools have started using to guide instruction in math and English language arts.
The Maine Education Association still supports the standards — which specify the English and math skills students should know at each grade level — but has concerns about their implementation in Maine schools. Specifically, the union is raising alarm about the soon-to-be-deployed standardized tests designed to gauge students’ mastery of the standards, which 44 states have adopted.
As Maine schools prepare to use a new standardized test starting next spring, the union is calling for a moratorium on the test’s use as a mechanism to hold schools and teachers accountable for their performance.
The call for a moratorium, a move that could jeopardize federal education funding, is ill-timed and ill-conceived.
Maine adopted the Common Core standards in 2011, and it’s one of 21 governing states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two multistate consortia developing tests aligned with the common standards.
The call for a Smarter Balanced moratorium comes just as field testing of the new assessment is getting underway in schools in Maine and other member states. The field tests are designed to familiarize students, teachers and administrators with the new assessment and its delivery, so they know how prepared they are to administer the new assessment. For the test makers, the field test offers an opportunity to continue refining development of test items, so they accurately reflect the Common Core standards.
The field test results have yet to be determined. Test makers, teachers and administrators have had little time to encounter whatever issues might arise during field testing. While the field testing might generate some concerns among the MEA and its members, the trial round could, by the same token, put some of their concerns to rest. It’s simply too early for the MEA to have specific reasons to reject the Smarter Balanced assessment as an accountability measure.
Even if the MEA is concerned about the use of Smarter Balanced test results as a component in teacher performance evaluations, legislation that just passed the House and Senate by a veto-proof margin could head off those concerns. The bill passed by lawmakers on Monday essentially leaves it up to local school districts — including local teachers’ associations — whether and to what extent standardized test results are figured into performance evaluations. The question of how those evaluations affect teacher pay is another question altogether.
The moratorium request prematurely shuts the door on full implementation of a test that will almost certainly be superior to the paper-and-pencil, largely multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble testing regime Maine schools now use. One of the Smarter Balanced assessment’s prime selling points is that it promises to place an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving — skills the current regime of standardized tests, by and large, do not emphasize. The assessment will be administered by computer, and the test items will come in a range of formats, including “ performance tasks” — series of questions and activities designed to measure the strength of students’ research and writing skills and how well they can apply their knowledge and skills to solve problems.
The test will use computer-adaptive technology, so the difficulty of test questions will change depending on how successfully students respond to each item: More difficult questions will follow correct responses; less difficult items will follow incorrect answers. Since a computer-adaptive test can more quickly measure a student’s mastery of the standards, the test can be less time-consuming than a uniform, paper-and-pencil test administered to everybody.
In announcing its desire for a moratorium, the MEA articulated a proper role for standardized testing in schools: to provide teachers with useful information that helps them improve instruction and tailor it to each student’s needs. Rather than advocate for a move that jeopardizes funding for Maine schools, the MEA could instead focus its efforts on changing federal law in a way that removes or reduces emphasis on high-stakes testing.
Meanwhile, in Maine schools, the MEA should be holding the Smarter Balanced test to account, ensuring that it is rigorous, useful and reflective of the Common Core-aligned skills students should be learning in the classroom.