December 18, 2017
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Panel votes to dump Smarter Balanced school test after debut year

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

AUGUSTA, Maine — After its debut year, Maine appears to be on the path to dumping its brand new statewide test meant to measure what students have learned.

That means whatever state assessment comes next would be the third that Maine schools have seen in as many years.

On Monday, members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted unanimously in favor of LD 1276, An Act To Improve Educational Assessments of Maine Students, which seeks to end the state’s membership in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The Department of Education would issue a request for proposals to provide new tests.

“For more than a year, we have heard stories as to the pitfalls of the test, as well as the errors in it that confuse students and make taking the test a stressful and frustrating event,” said Lois Kilby Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. She said her organization was “ecstatic” about the vote.

The bill now goes to the House and Senate for votes.

“The committee understood that Smarter Balanced contract wouldn’t be renewed by the governor under any circumstance, and the political turbulence around testing this year is intense,” Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, said Monday night in an email explaining the committee’s vote.

Smarter Balanced officials said Monday night that they were “disappointed” by the committee vote.

“Maine has been a leader in Smarter Balanced with hundreds of Maine teachers building the assessment,” said Tony Alpert, executive director of the assessment company. “States all over the country use Smarter Balanced because it measures critical thinking and problem solving and colleges and universities have given the test their stamp of approval. In the first year of deployment, there are always bumps in the road. We worked with Maine as issues arose and believed Maine was in an excellent position to continue giving an online, high-quality assessment like Smarter Balanced.”

This spring, the Smarter Balanced consortium issued its first official Maine test, replacing the New England Common Assessment Program, a test that Maine students in grades three through eight had been taking in reading and math since 2009. It also replaced the SAT, which had been used to test 11th-graders since 2006.

The Smarter Balanced contract was $2.7 million in its first — and possibly only — year, with $900,000 in annual dues, according to acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardins. Desjardins said there is no financial penalty for withdrawing from the consortium.

Smarter Balanced has come under fire in other states for major failures and bugs that delayed testing. In Montana, for example, a series of widespread technical problems caused the state to make the testing optional in its debut this spring. North Dakota and Nevada also reported problems.

While Maine hasn’t experienced any “major statewide disasters,” according to Desjardins, representatives of the Maine Education Association say some districts or parents have reported that students experienced “freezes” while taking the test, lost work “for no explainable reason,” or struggled with “vague and poorly worded questions.”

During a public hearing in front of the Education Committee earlier this month, students and teachers visiting Augusta lashed out against the test.

Desjardins said that if the bill passes and the Smarter Balanced contract is severed, DOE will issue a request for proposals to provide new state assessments to Maine’s school districts. Northwest Evaluation Association, Pearson, Measured Progress and Educational Testing Service are a few examples of organizations that offer these services and could be potential suitors to supply a new test for Maine.

Bangor school Superintendent Betsy Webb said Monday that if the state were to drop Smarter Balanced, she would favor using the SAT as the state’s high school assessment and Northwest Evaluation Association to measure earlier grades. She said her district would prefer a computer-based test — because of “timeliness and ease of access” — with a testing period no longer than two weeks to cut down on lost instruction time.

“Assessment, if used wisely, is critical for helping students and schools progress to the next level of performance,” Webb said.

Desjardins said it would be “foolish” for the state to return to “fill-in-the-bubble” tests, as those have lived out their useful life. Any bidders for the new statewide assessment would be required to include a computer-based testing option.

The state likely would consider companies with existing tests, as hiring a group to develop an entirely new assessment from scratch — including the thousands of questions that come with it — can be a costly venture, especially in a state with a small population, according to Desjardins.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.


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