Credit: George Danby

Over the past century, American standardized testing policy has had wide-ranging effects, enhancing but sometimes harming K-12 education. The way that standardized tests are used in Maine is progressive because it does not punish schools or teachers and allows for local autonomy. However, Maine’s eMPowerME test, which is used to evaluate statewide achievement in elementary and middle school, needs to be improved, and test scores need to be used in ways that benefit every student fairly. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of other testing systems throughout the U.S., we can make Maine tests better and give Maine students and teachers what they need to succeed.

One of the greatest problems with testing in Maine is that it highlights low-performing schools without providing them with enough resources to improve. Often, rural and low-scoring districts have a difficult time attracting and retaining qualified teachers. Publicizing standardized test scores can unfairly devalue the education in these schools, which can actually make these underlying problems worse.

Because education funding does not provide enough extra resources to make up for the disparity between high- and low-scoring districts, low scores do not result in school improvement. Differences in educational resources across the state are exacerbated by publicizing testing results that devalue education in low-scoring districts, which need more help to improve. Maine should pair required tests with extra resources to make positive changes in low-scoring schools.

According to the findings of a statewide survey reported by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute in “ A Review of Standardized Testing Practices and Perceptions in Maine,” teachers believe that Maine’s state test (the eMPowerME) is not ideal. They believe that it does not provide the same benefits as other commercial tests like the NWEAs. Teachers feel that the eMPowerME does not provide data that is useful and it takes too long for test results to reach schools and actually get used to improve curriculum. State tests should become at least as good as reliable commercial tests.

Maine does have testing problems, but other states show what shouldn’t be done to fix them. For instance, Florida has extreme accountability at all administrative levels for test scores. In states like Florida, there is government-incentivised competition among school districts to be top-scoring districts (which get extra funding) and to avoid being bottom-scoring districts (which might be closed or reorganized). This can breed cheating, like what happened in Atlanta in 2009 and El Paso in 2010. Under Gov. Paul LePage, Maine’s testing system followed this trend toward negative competition. Despite this push, Maine districts have maintained their independence and are not required to use test scores for teacher evaluations. Furthermore, Maine’s approach does not punish teachers or districts for underachieving on tests. Evidence from other states shows us that this is the correct decision.

The power to choose commercial tests other than mandatory tests like the SAT or the eMPowerME resides with Maine’s school districts. The NWEA is a popular optional test used by more than half of Maine’s districts because it provides detailed information about students’ individual learning progress and adapts its difficulty for question after question. By being able to choose good tests such as the NWEA, schools can more effectively test students and schools are able to improve education through the well-informed analytics of these tests.

To provide an equal education for every student, our education funding must give each school enough money and qualified teachers, no matter the school’s test scores, so each student can succeed. This concept is called resource accountability: keeping the government liable for educational resource disparities and protesting when the government doesn’t do enough. Additionally, Maine needs to put more work into its eMPowerME state test so that it can become as effective as other commercial tests.

Maintaining the best aspects of testing policies and adopting these changes could dramatically improve educational quality across the state and keep Maine on the right track to having a model educational system.

I would like to thank the University of Maine faculty and the Orono public school superintendent for sharing their insight and expertise on these issues.

Thomas Wheeler is a junior at Orono High School.