AUGUSTA, Maine — A rare mix of Republican and Democratic legislators — including the House whip for each party — is helping to lead the charge on a bill that would make it easier for parents to keep their children from taking standardized tests in public schools.
Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, assistant House majority leader, authored the bill. Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the assistant House minority leader, is a co-sponsor.
During a media event Thursday at the State House, Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, another co-sponsor, described the legislation as a simple and straightforward way to make clear that children, schools and teachers can’t be penalized when parents pull their children from standardized testing.
Libby’s bill requires school districts to inform parents of their rights to submit a written request to have their children excluded from the tests. The measure also would prohibit the state from penalizing schools or students when students decide they don’t want to participate in the testing.
The bill also would require schools to offer alternative educational activities for students who sit out standardized tests.
Federal law already allows parents to have their children exempted from the tests, which parents and many teachers say increasingly are steering children from more meaningful learning opportunities and instruction.
Public school students have been taking standardized tests for decades, Libby said, but recently the frequency and intensity of the tests, along with a new focus on test scores and school and teacher performance, have made the process counterproductive.
“Classroom time is at a premium as state and federal mandates on classroom instruction continue to grow, while teachers and students struggle to meet all the requirements in a six-hour school day,” Libby said. “Teachers, parents and students in my community are fearful, they’re frustrated and they’re seeking relief from these heavy-handed testing mandates.”
Gideon questioned the trend toward more standardized testing in public schools. She said she and others want to know how much time standardized testing and preparation for tests is consuming in Maine schools each year.
Gideon, a parent of three public school students, questioned what government is trying to determine by doing so much testing and whether the tests actually were providing any valuable data to school systems.
“There’s no doubt we must make sure our schools are offering rigorous curriculums,” Gideon said. “But as a parent, I tell you this: I’m not convinced that standardized testing measures the effectiveness of a teacher, a school or of a student’s ability.”
She said the U.S. Supreme Court already had established the right for parents to exempt their children from the tests but Maine law remains unclear. The bill aims to add clarity to state law on standardized testing.
Joining Libby and Gideon on Thursday to call for action on standardized testing was Lewiston parent Karen Richard-McClure.
She told the media about how her daughter, who is a high-achieving student and always on the honor roll, was so pressured by working to constantly improve on the tests that she was emotionally traumatized and lost her love for school.
Eventually, Richard-McClure said, she started asking questions of school leaders and decided to exercise her parental rights to opt her children out of the tests.
Richard-McClure said she then decided to choose the tests her children would take based on which tests teachers said they found useful in helping guide student education. She also noted that Lewiston was facing problems with taking a new state standardized test that is administered on tablets.
“I believe in public schools,” Richard-McClure said. “I believe that our incredibly hardworking and dedicated teachers deserve better. Our children are more than test scores. My children are not data, they are not for profit.”
During a time when school budgets are tight, “we are spending thousands on useless tests,” Richard-McClure said. “The only people benefiting from this are the companies that write the tests. All this testing is hurting our children, hurting our teachers and hurting our schools. Our schools are not failing the tests, the tests are failing the schools.”
The bill, LD 695, will next move to public hearings before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in the weeks ahead.