More than half of Rockport high school juniors opt out of new state test

Posted March 20, 2015, at 7:03 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — Parents of more than half the roughly 150 juniors at Camden Hills Regional High School have opted to let their children skip this year’s Maine Educational Assessment, according to school officials.

“Many parents want their students to spend their time preparing for the SATs and AP exams,” Principal Nick Ithomitis said in an email Friday. “Others said they thought the tests were too long. Parents said they did not believe there was any incentive or value to having their students take the test. Others simply objected on philosophical grounds, saying they did not believe in standardized testing.”

Another likely factor in the high opt-out rate was the school’s decision to hold the tests over two Saturdays in order to reduce the amount of instructional time the school would have lost had it held the testing during school days.

That decision “created conflicts with family time and students’ work schedules,” Ithomitis said.

“The opt-out letters have been pouring in this week when our juniors began taking the practice exams,” he said.

The first testing window for the new MEA tests, developed by Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, started on March 16 and runs through May 29. Students in grades 3-8 and 11th grade take MEAs to assess student success and progress.

“Unlike the bubble tests of the past, this new assessment measures higher-order thinking and how students actually apply the skills they should be learning and need for 21st Century college and career success,” the Maine Department of Education said in a letter to districts as they prepared to launch the tests.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Elaine Nutter and Assistant Superintendent Maria Libby, who oversee a school district representing the towns of Camden, Rockport, Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville, sent a letter to the district’s parents to address the “intense” national debate over standardized testing in schools.

The letter stated that the district was supportive of the national Common Core standards adopted into Maine’s standards in 2011 and “increasing the rigor of standards that are taught in our classrooms will raise the preparedness of all our graduates for a competitive and changing world.”

But the district also expressed “some reservations” about the approaching tests, including the perceived increase in difficulty of the assessment and higher-order thinking needed to answer them.

“Based on [Smarter Balanced] field tests last spring, only 41 percent of 11th-graders who take the test this spring are expected to achieve a score that is considered ‘proficient,’” the administrators said in the letter.

Finally, Nutter and Libby discussed concerns about the state of standardized testing in general.

“As a district, we have reservations about the true value of our state-mandated testing,” they said. “We believe that what matters most is what happens in the classroom on a daily basis.”

Nutter and Libby encouraged parents in their district to consider their test results “only as one piece of information about our success as a district.”

Libby said in an email Friday that just 11 of 542 students in MSAD 28’s middle school and elementary school opted out of MEA testing. She did not have the opt-out numbers for Union 69 schools, three K-8 schools in Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville.

The high number of opt-outs at the high school level could spark federal funding fallout for area schools, state education officials warn.

Under federal law, schools are required to have at least a 95 percent participation rate in these assessments. If they don’t meet that standard, federal money issued in connection with Title 2 and Title 6 funds could be cut. Additionally, state-administered federal dollars used to recognize schools’ progress toward closing student achievement gaps could be cut if the state fails to meet its testing target, according to Warren.

The state has said it won’t seek penalties in this first transition year into Smarter Balanced tests, but the federal government hasn’t officially made the same promise.

Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said Friday that MSAD 28 receives $650,000 annually in funding from the federal government.

“We are certainly hoping that the federal government would not use a parent’s choice to opt their child out of standardized testing as a financial sanction against the district,” Libby said.

Additionally, lower-than-required testing turnout can hurt a school department’s federal and state grading, though Maine recently announced it wouldn’t administer grades to schools in this transition year.

Nutter and Libby pointed out these potential consequences to parents in their district through their March letter.

“We do understand the potentially difficult situation this places upon the schools, but we also have to listen to our parents,” Libby said in her email. “We can’t force students to take the test.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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