AUGUSTA, Maine — Tens of thousands of Maine students puzzled their way through new online standardized tests during the past school year. Many others refused to take them, opting out with their parents’ approval.
Now, the results are in on the Smarter Balanced tests that cost the state $2.7 million to implement only to be scrapped after one year amid backlash from students, parents, educators and lawmakers.
Whether the scores are of any benefit to anyone depends on who is asked. Some education officials say the numbers provide a useful early snapshot of how Maine students are progressing toward achieving proficiency-based learning standards known as Common Core. Others say they are less than helpful as educators continue the search for an efficient and accurate way to measure learning.
A summary of the results shows that 48 percent of Maine students in third through eighth grade and 11th grade who took the controversial tests scored proficient or better in English language arts and literacy, while 36 percent were proficient or better in math.
Maine Department of Education officials released initial results late Thursday night, and discussed their meaning during a Friday morning news conference. All of the test results, broken down by school, are available on the state Department of Education’s website.
“This is a demonstration of great change for our state,” said Department of Education Acting Deputy Director Rachelle Tome on Friday. She said the “foundational year” results provide a “baseline” that will give school districts an idea of how well students are meeting more rigorous expectations.
The challenge with these test results is they can’t be compared with previous years, when students took the Maine Educational Assessment. The Smarter Balanced assessment, issued to students last school year, and the previous MEA, from the 2013-14 school year, were two starkly different tests. Besides the fact Smarter Balanced was taken online, while MEA was pencil-on-paper, the tests also were based on different standards.
Education officials say that the new Common Core-based standards, adopted into Maine Learning Results, are more rigorous and ask students to do more higher-level thinking and less guessing. Rather than solving an equation or reading a passage and then filling in a bubble, students are directed to work through multilayered problems, using graphs and other tools, and thinking critically to come to a solution.
The new assessment was meant to test students on those skills, and better prepare them for the rigors of college or workforce training.
“This was a huge challenge for Maine schools, and they met it with remarkable skill,” Maine Department of Education Acting Director Tom Desjardin said in a news release. “The shift to a computerized assessment from paper and pencil was difficult enough, but the shift to new standards and a more rigorous assessment made this year’s effort an unusually difficult task.”
The Maine Education Association downplayed the new test results and the value of standardized testing in general in a Friday news release.
“Our students are more than a test score — a test score is just one piece of the puzzle,” said Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley. “As experts in educational practice, we know the current system of standardized tests does not provide educators or students with the feedback any of us need to promote the success and learning of students.”
Receiving the results of the test five months after it was issued is also “less than helpful” to teachers who hoped to use those results to shape their lessons. Kilby-Chesley said the Maine Education Association was hopeful that the state’s Smarter Balanced replacement will “provide results that can be used to guide instruction for our students and tailor lessons to their individual needs.”
The state Legislature voted in June to drop out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, after school districts complained that the tests took too long, the wrong tests were issued, some questions were poorly worded, and the interface wasn’t user-friendly, among other concerns.
“What we want schools to do is look at the data locally,” Tome said, addressing how the one-time scores might be useful. Low proficiency performance might help districts realize where students are struggling. “That may help direct some of the instruction they want to do coming up.”
For example, one area of focus likely will be high school math. Just 25 percent of the state’s 11th-grade students tested proficient in that area.
The results also reveal which schools in Maine saw high opt-out rates from these tests.
Federal law requires that 95 percent of students in a given school take standardized tests. Schools that fall below that threshold could see reduced funding as a result, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Maine Department of Education also has cautioned parents who choose to opt their students out of the required state assessment that their child might not graduate, depending on the rules in their district. Some school departments require completion of tests as a condition of graduation, just as some require a certain number of hours of community service.
Not all of the students missed the test because their parents opted them out. In some cases, students missed it because of illness or other circumstances. However, in places where large percentages of the class didn’t take the test, high opt-out rates were often the cause. Maine’s opt-out movement gained steam in several communities this year.
The state doesn’t have data on how many students specified opting out as the reason for not taking the test. That information is managed by the individual districts.
High schools tended to have lower participation rates than their elementary or middle school counterparts.
In the most stark example, at Yarmouth High School, fewer than 10 percent of 11th-graders took the Smarter Balanced tests. At Orono High School, fewer than 18 percent of 11th-graders took the tests.
Some middle and elementary schools also saw low participation rates. At Camden-Rockport Middle School, just 46 percent of students took the test. The elementary school did slightly better, with 64 percent.
The Department of Education says some low participation rates could have resulted in part from technical problems, such as when some classes mistakenly administered the wrong test.
Statewide, the average participation rate was under 90 percent.
The next test
Maine is trying to determine what test will replace Smarter Balanced.
This week, the Maine Department of Education issued a request for proposals (RFP) seeking bids from companies willing to provide the next state assessment. Officials say the next test, which will be issued in 2016, also will be computer-based and focused on Maine Learning Results, and therefore, Common Core standards.
Questions from firms interested in submitting a proposal are due by the end of business on Sept. 14. The proposals themselves must be submitted no later than 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29.
A state review panel will then examine the proposals. The state will open negotiations in October, make a selection, and work with the group to ensure the test students take next year will meet the state’s and its students’ needs.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.