June 19, 2018
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A plea for help from the education commissioner

By Bill Webster, Special to the BDN

The first few months in office by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen have been well received by most observers. He has made a concerted effort to visit schools, solicit feedback and acknowledge the concerns of many who have been frustrated by the past lack of long range planning coming out of Maine’s Department of Education. I urge the commissioner to continue this work and pursue a policy change that will greatly improve education in Maine.

He should seek a federal waiver to change the type and timing of assessment tests that we use to measure student progress and meet the requirement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB, now the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). If implemented, these changes will benefit Maine students by providing immediate feedback on student performance, enabling teachers to make timely adjustments to instructional practices, strengthening how we measure teacher effectiveness and reducing out-of-class time for testing.

Since 2008, Maine has used a test called the New England Common Assessment Program to measure student progress in mathematics and reading in grades 3 through 8. The Maine Educational Assessment is used to assess science in grades 5 and 8. These tests are designed to measure whether a student is proficient in the subject material and to categorize schools as meeting or not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress in academic success.

Unfortunately, the tests do not tell us the actual proficiency level at which a student is functioning, nor do they provide guidance to teachers on how to adapt instructional practices to better meet student needs. Furthermore, the New England assessment is administered in October, long after the applicable school year has been completed, and the results are only available several months later.

The deficiencies of these tests might be demonstrated best by using an example from the private sector. Let us say you start a new job that might take a year or two to fully master. On your first day you learn that you will be evaluated in one week using performance standards based upon full mastery of all skills needed in your new position. You probably would not have a positive evaluation even though you might be improving greatly with each additional day on the job. If, on the other hand, you were assessed based upon your growth or movement toward the performance standards, your evaluation might be outstanding.

We further compound the system deficiencies in our example, however, by giving you your one-week evaluation six months after the fact. This means that you would have worked another six months without knowing which areas you were doing well and those in need of improvement. This would not be a very effective evaluation system for the private sector nor are the New England and Maine tests good assessment tools to benefit Maine students.

The fact is that these present statewide assessments may result in praise for the wrong schools and unfairly stigmatizing other schools and teachers that are achieving much. Schools that have a disproportionate share of immigrants or students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be judged as failing even though their students might be achieving one and a half or even two years of educational growth in one year.

Alternatively, schools with a disproportionate share of students from high socioeconomic backgrounds may be judged as successful even though their students, while meeting proficiency standards, are exhibiting little, if any, educational growth.

School districts across Maine have long recognized the deficiencies in the statewide assessments and have adopted other tools that identify where students are, provide immediate results and match instructional practices with student needs. The most common such assessment is called Measures of Academic Progress developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, and many districts use this assessment to set and measure progress toward student academic goals.

Our work with NWEA, however, is compromised by the attention given to the New England and Maine tests. Arguably, we have too many assessments, but the real problem is that we spend too much student time on the wrong assessments. The elimination of the the New England and Maine assessments could effectively increase the school year by two days for elementary students in the vast majority of Maine districts that are already using the Northwest model.

The commissioner should immediately seek a waiver from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to replace our present statewide assessments with the Northwest assessment. If granted, the change will benefit Maine students. If refused, Maine, at least, will be joining the chorus of other states that want Congress to address these flaws in No Child Left Behind. Time is too short not to try.

Bill Webster is superintendent of schools in Lewiston.

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