BELFAST, Maine — High school student Madison Cook is not looking forward to the upcoming round of standardized tests Maine students soon will need to take, saying the annual statewide assessment is disruptive and not helpful for students like her.
“Having to spend my time generating statistics for the state isn’t benefitting me in any way, shape or form,” the Belfast teen said recently. “I feel like we’re being trained to just be able to take a test and spit out the right answers. It’s kind of eliminating the creative part of learning.”
While students in Maine have been assessed by the state for many years, a national movement against standardized testing seems to be spreading here. Testing opponents say that’s partly because of changes in the exam and an increase in the number of standardized tests — and time spent preparing for those tests — students must endure during their public school careers. Because test results can be linked to school performance and even federal funding, the stakes can feel high to students and school staff.
Jim Handy, chairman of the Lewiston School Committee, said board members in his community decided Feb. 23 at their regular meeting to send a letter home to parents, alerting them they are allowed to have their children opt out of the tests. Parents have always been able to do this, he said, but not many know it. Lewiston may be the first community in the state to explicitly notify parents about their rights in this regard.
“We’re taking the steps to be transparent,” Handy, a former state lawmaker, said. “When I was in the Legislature, I made several attempts to eliminate funding for the Maine Educational Assessment. The MEA has changed a lot; but still, in my mind, it’s not a tool that I would recommend. It really doesn’t address the growth of a child.”
But that is not its point, according to the Maine Department of Education, which would like to continue with high student-participation rates for the tests, which are to be administered between mid-March and end of May to assess English and math proficiency.
“Assessments provide parents honest, objective information on how their child is doing,” Samantha Warren, director of communications for the department, wrote Wednesday in an email to the BDN. “Assessments identify struggling students and schools to make sure they receive the help and resources they need to be successful … and hold schools accountable to the taxpayers who pay for them.”
This spring’s Maine Educational Assessment that students will see is the latest in a series of testing changes. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Maine educators designed the Maine Educational Assessment test that third-, fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade students took every year. Then students in grades three through eight took the New England Common Assessment Program tests in reading and math every year. Since 2006, high school juniors here have taken the SAT.
The latest MEAs, created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, replaces both those tests for students in grades three through eight and high school juniors, according to Warren.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said recently she was glad to hear Lewiston parents will learn they can opt out of the tests, and she hopes all parents statewide will be made aware of the possibility.
“A lot of parents feel that the stress of the testing is just incredible on their kids,” she said. “It’s not just the testing; it’s the preparation for the testing. The Smarter Balanced test is such a high-stakes test. Teachers are spending up to 80 hours preparing for this test, and the preparation time is not teaching time — it’s how to move a cursor.”
State Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said she expects Maine lawmakers will soon look at LR 1011, “An Act to Empower Parents in the Education of Their Children.” Her bill would codify the fact that parents can opt their children out of a standardized test, she said.
“As a parent, and as somebody who talks to teachers, I definitely have felt this growing sense of awareness and discomfort with how much time standardized tests are taking up in our kids’ school life and education,” she said. “This is actually a very simple bill. … For me, this is part of a bigger conversation about education and how we are teaching our children.”
But according to the Maine Department of Education, reduced participation in the assessments could come at a price to school districts. Warren said there are federal expectations that schools achieve a 95 percent assessment-participation rate.
“Those expectations have been historically tied to funding,” she said.
Another problem associated with opting out of testing is schools that don’t meet the 95 percent participation rate automatically are listed as failing under federal standards, according to Heather Perry, superintendent of Regional School Unit 3. The board of her 11-town rural school district in western Waldo County will discuss whether to notify parents they can opt out of the upcoming tests at the next regular meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, March 9, at Mount View High School in Thorndike.
“There’s a fairly large movement against the test,” Perry said. “I actually support the test myself. It gives you a good snapshot of where your school is, and it gives you a good benchmark for planning purposes. It is a data point. And as a data point, I think it’s important.”
This spring’s MEA is different, she agrees, but in ways she believes will be better for students. Because the test is new this year, it will become the benchmark that following years will be compared against, Perry said.
“With the old paper test, you’d fill in the bubbles. This test is computerized. It adapts to the learner,” she said. “It will give you a truer picture. And it’s more flexible in terms of timing, so students get the time they need.”
During a board meeting Wednesday night, Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb called the intention behind the assessments honorable, saying they want children “to think deeply and to have higher order abilities.”
While Bangor schools are not looking to opt out of the tests, Webb expressed concerns about the process and technology.
She told the board that students may not adequately be prepared to take the new standardized assessments, indicating Bangor schools did not get practice tests until January for the assessments students will take next month.
Webb also said sample questions were hard to find because the testing consortium’s website was difficult to navigate.
“We have concerns that the test this year will [not] truly test students’ knowledge and that some of it may have been hindered by the technology and the process,” she said.
Teachers in Lewiston earlier this month also complained to school board members about how the technology required to take the new tests is not working well, according to the Sun Journal. Teachers who took practice tests indicated that, in some instances, a misplaced point on the iPad could not be taken off, meaning mistakes could not be undone.
Lewiston Middle School teacher Brian Banton told the school board multiplication symbols “don’t appear as multiplication symbols.”
“As we went on, I was amazed to discover that the test doesn’t work,” he said, telling board members the test would be challenging enough if everything went as planned.
While the state allows students to take the test on paper instead, the deadline to request that was Feb. 4. According to Warren, only about 220 students — the majority of whom are special needs — out of 100,000-plus students opted to go for a paper test.
The Department of Education spokesperson said those numbers signify “that Maine schools do in fact have confidence and see the value in the adaptive nature of the new assessment.”
Perry, the RSU 3 superintendent, said her school district has not experienced the technical problems other districts have indicated.
“ Anybody can access the practice tests,” she said. “We’re doing it here. We’re just making sure kids are familiar with the test.”
Perry said that while some school districts in Maine might “teach to the test,” that’s not the case in RSU 3.
“We make sure curriculum is aligned to the standards,” she said. “We don’t teach to the test. Never have. It’s a true assessment of what these students know, in terms of proficiency and standards.”
Perry encourages parents to reach out to principals and teachers if they have questions about the new standards or about the MEAs. She was concerned that if too many students opt out of the tests for too many years in a row, some of RSU 3’s federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds will be jeopardized. Her district has a high percentage of students who receive free or reduced lunch and receives more than $775,000 in federal Title 2 and Title 6 funds. Those are dollars that might be on the line if participation rates dip below 95 percent.
“Our district is a fairly poor district. We simply don’t do well on standardized tests,” Perry said. “But that doesn’t mean you throw the tests out. They are useful tools. They help us understand if the programs are working or not.”
Lisa Cooley, a longtime RSU 3 school board member who is philosophically opposed to standardized testing, said linking outcomes to funding is wrong.
“Standardized testing is bad enough when it doesn’t have teeth,” she said. “When it does have teeth and the quality of education in your district is evaluated based on standardized testing, it’s going to have hugely negative effects. We have become so addicted to numbers and test results and accountability. It’s just a misunderstanding of what learning is.”
According to Cook, the Islesboro Central School student, true learning looks more like what happens in her physics class, where the teacher uses a “crazy” system to help students really understand the discipline — not to simply regurgitate formulas. She would like to tell the people who make standardized tests that students don’t fit into a one-size-fits-all mold.
“I’d like to tell them to think about students more broadly and more individually,” she said. “They care more about our statistics and us in the black-and-white sense than us as full human beings, engaged and interested.”