State wants help as it reworks school assessment model

Posted Dec. 05, 2011, at 7:35 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — The Maine Department of Education is looking for a few good ideas as state officials begin to develop an alternative to the controversial and often unpopular No Child Left Behind Act.

Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Monday in a press conference that he’s asking parents, teachers, students, school board members and others to share their thoughts about how Maine can best develop its own system of school accountability and recognition. They can fill out an online survey or participate in a forum, the first of which is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Bangor High School cafeteria.

“We’ve got a lot of work in front of us. Right now, we’re doing the outreach piece,” the commissioner said. “We will be meeting with all of the various stakeholder groups, and really trying to get a good chunk of feedback.”

Maine is among 40 states which have told the U.S. Department of Education they intend to take President Barack Obama up on his offer to let them submit a plan to waive the requirements of the law.

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No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2001 in order to promote school accountability and teacher success. But the law itself has been less than successful, Bowen said. In October his department released figures showing that l ess than 30 percent of Maine schools are considered to be making adequate yearly progress as measured by student test scores and attendance.

“We broadly concluded that it wasn’t the solution everybody hoped it would be,” he said.

Under the unpopular law, Maine schools have had to meet higher testing targets each year in order to make adequate yearly progress. The ultimate goal is to have 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by 2014.

That’s true whether or not students are poor test takers, intend to continue on to a trade school, are English language learners, have learning disabilities or receive special education.

Among the so-called failing schools listed this fall are Camden Hills High School, Bangor High School, Hampden Academy and Orono High School, all of which routinely send students to top-notch colleges.

To waive the No Child Left Behind requirements, Maine must submit a formal request for “flexibility” under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the U.S. Department of Education by Feb. 21, 2012.

“The long and the short of it is, we’re not allowed to just decide which parts of the law we want to ignore or modify,” he said. “It’s about giving flexibility within the law.”

He said the “meat of the issue” is what Maine will do about ensuring school, teacher and principal accountability. After years of failing to meet increasingly strict goals set by No Child Left Behind, states around the country now will be able to incorporate indicators that hopefully will work better, he said.

“We will still need to test all schools every year. We will need to look at how they’re doing,” Bowen said. “This waiver allows us to look at some other indicators, other than test scores.”

Those might include attendance figures or some measure of parental involvement, he said. Another goal is to be able to track how students improve from year to year — not just compare “this year’s third-graders to last year’s third-graders,” Bowen said.

State officials also hope to be able to respond to what the commissioner called a legitimate criticism of No Child Left Behind. He said that while the law provided ample opportunity to point a finger at underperforming schools, it did not recognize schools which were successful.

“I think this will be an opportunity,” Bowen said.

Not everyone is convinced that is the case. Chris Galgay of the Maine Education Association wrote in a column posted on the association’s website that he is conflicted over whether the state should ask the federal government for the waiver.

“I support opting out of the harmful mandates of [No Child Left Behind,] but the strings attached to this waiver might prove to be even more harmful to our schools and educators. Stay tuned,” he wrote.

Efforts Monday to contact Galgay were unsuccessful.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said that more than 50 people had filled the survey out by Monday afternoon, with an ultimate goal of 1,000 participants.

“We want a very broad response on this,” he said.

The survey asks respondents where they live, what role they play in education and what factors are most important in terms of measuring a school’s success, among other questions.

Options include graduation rates, school dropout rates, levels of parental engagement and student performance on state assessments.

As Maine reinvents its model for school assessment, it will be able to take advantage of similar work that other states are doing.

“There’s going to be a lot of invention going on across the country around this,” Bowen said.

Besides the forum in Bangor on Thursday, the Maine Department of Education also will hold an online forum 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13, at and an in-person forum from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, at Portland Arts and Technology High School Room 250, in Portland.

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