AUGUSTA, Maine — Students, teachers and Common Core opponents on Monday lashed out against the state’s new standardized tests, and they called on lawmakers to eliminate the tests, the standards or both and start fresh.
During a lengthy series of public hearings, the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee heard testimony regarding a series of bills focused on testing, educational standards and proficiency requirements.
LD 695 aims to codify in state statute that parents can opt their children out of standardized tests. This is a right that parents already have — several Supreme Court decisions have said so — but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said she wants that spelled out in statute.
The bill also would require a school to find an alternative “educational activity” for an opt-out student to do while his or her peers are taking the test, and it would prevent the Maine Department of Education from “penalizing” schools for not testing a student.
“At school, we are supposed to learn and have fun while doing so,” said Kyren Bettencourt, an eighth-grader at Gorham Middle School. “I do not feel like a better learner after taking this assessment, and I certainly did not have fun while taking it.”
This is Maine’s first year of issuing the Maine Educational Assessment, as developed by Smarter Balanced to test student performance toward Maine Learning Results, which were amended to adopt Common Core standards in 2011.
Schools in pockets across Maine have reported students opting out of the tests at high rates. The movement seems to be most prevalent among high school parents, with far higher opt-out rates among juniors taking the Maine Educational Assessment than among elementary and middle schoolers, who take the tests to measure their progress between grades three through eight.
In Sanford, 120 of 268 high school juniors didn’t take the test. In Lewiston, 55 percent of juniors opted out, along with about 10 percent of elementary school students and 14 percent of middle schoolers. Cape Elizabeth saw 32 percent of its eighth-graders, 18 percent of its seventh-graders and 64 percent of its high school juniors opt out. There are many examples of high opt out rates across the state, but a reliable statewide tally isn’t yet available.
“These opt-out numbers are significantly different to opt-out numbers we saw under NECAP or prior MEA assessments,” said Meredith Nadeau, superintendent of Cape Elizabeth School District.
This trend is seeing growth in other states that adopted Common Core based assessments through Smarter Balanced or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
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 1, Title 2 and Title 6 funds could be cut.
“The federal government has the keys to Title I funding, and if that funding is compromised, the impact will be substantial in being able to provide services to our lowest achieving students,” said Bernadette Flynn, curriculum director at Sanford School Department.
The Maine Department of Education has said it won’t take any action against schools that don’t test enough students, at least not in the debut year of Smarter Balanced tests. The federal government, however, has made no such promise.
In an interview during a recent education journalism conference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the federal government may have to crack down on states with high rates of students whose parents are boycotting standardized tests. The opt-out movement has been growing in recent years as groups push back against state testing that sprouted from federal Common Core standards.
He said he expects states to take steps to ensure enough students take the assessments.
“If states don’t do that, then we have an obligation to step in,” Duncan said.
“One reason that many parents gave for opting out this year is that no data will be available for their children despite the number of hours that individual children will spend completing the assessment,” Nadeau said. “Additionally, parents have objected to the idea of their children being subjected to the technological challenges accompanying the delivery of this assessment.”
Some students and teachers have reported issues and bugs with the new computer-based tests. Those range from “freezes,” lost work, poorly worded questions, among others, according to the Maine Education Association.
Other bills presented Monday went further than just ensuring parents know they can opt out — they aim to do away with the new assessments or Common Core standards in Maine.
LD 1276, An Act to Improve Educational Assessments of Maine Students, aims to kill the Smarter Balanced tests after their debut this year and replace it with a state-developed assessment.
Still more drastic is LD 1396, which aims to kill Maine’s Common Core-based standards, replacing them with the standards that Massachusetts had before it adopted Common Core. Common Core opponents frequently cite Massachusetts’ old standards as being among the strongest in the world. The state also would have to craft new assessments to go along with these new Massachusetts-based standards.
Groups including No Common Core Maine and the Maine Heritage Policy Center played integral roles in crafting and supporting these and other bills aimed at decreasing the influence of Common Core standards and related testing in Maine. The Maine Heritage Policy Center held a luncheon earlier this session in which it urged its members to support the changes laid out in LD 1396.
The Maine Department of Education, several education groups, and some school administrators and teachers cautioned against taking such a dramatic reversal. They argue that the state hasn’t even had enough time to gather data to determine how effective the Common Core-based standards or the tests have been.
Changing the assessment and/or standards again would mean more years in which the state would go without data to measure the success of students and schools, argue the bill’s opponents.
“We need to stay the course,” said Dick Durost of the Maine Principals’ Association.
Each of these bills will go back to the committee for a work session in the coming weeks, where lawmakers will decide whether to recommend approval by the whole Legislature.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.