2015-09-18 / Front Page

Students score big on test

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND/CAPE ELIZABETH – Cape Elizabeth students appear to have outperformed their peers statewide on standardized testing, while South Portland students performed much worse.

However, the value of the data is debatable, given the one-and-done application of the measure, which has been booted by the state after a single year.

In test results released by the Maine Department of Education on Thursday, Sept. 10, fewer than half of all students in Maine (48 percent) met or exceeded grade-level literacy standards on the test, designed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, a multi-state group that designs automated testing of the national Common Core curriculum. Meanwhile, only 36 percent of Maine students met the Common Core standards in math.

A third test, measuring science skills, continues to use the Maine Education Assessment template. By that measure, 61 percent of all students made the grade statewide.

Meanwhile, in Cape Elizabeth, results in literacy ranged from 49.3 percent proficient at the high school (where only juniors were tested), to 59.1 percent meeting or exceeding standards at the middle school and 63.9 percent meeting or exceeding at Pond Cove Elementary School. Results were lower in math, ranging from 31.1 percent proficient at Cape Elizabeth High School, to 48.4 at the middle school and 60.3 percent at Pond Cove.

The MEA test in science is only administered at grades five, eight, and 11, as opposed to the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, given to grades three to eight and 11. On that test, Cape students cleared the bar by a wide margin, with 81.4 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards at the middle school and 82.3 percent at the high school.

It was a different result in South Portland, however.

There, fewer than half of students met standards in literacy at all schools except Mahoney Middle School and Small Elementary, the latter of which posted the best results in the district. But even there, 58.5 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level expectations. Elsewhere, results ranged as low as 31.8 percent proficient at Skillin Elementary and 24.2 percent at Kaler Elementary.

In math, students at Dyer Elementary posted the best results, as 37.7 percent of students met or exceeded standards, while Skillin and Kaler again trailed the field, posting 22.6 and 22.0 percent proficiency results, respectively.

South Portland students performed best on the science test, with three quarters meeting the grade at Small Elementary (75.5 percent) and Mahoney (77.7 percent). However, only half of all students met or exceeded standards at Skillin (50.8 percent) and Kaler (50.0 percent), while 39.5 percent of juniors at the high school met grade-level expectations.

“We look at multiple sources of information to assess the performance of our schools, and this is certainly one of those sources of information,” South Portland’s new superintendent, Ken Kunin, said Tuesday. “We continually analyze data and work with our principals and teachers to guide ongoing improvement.”

Kunin took his post Aug. 1, replacing longtime superintendent Suzanne Godin, who was at the helm when the tests were administered in May.

“I would disagree with the overall (negative) characterization of South Portland’s scores,” Kunin said. “In order for a score to be statistically different it really needs to be about 4 percent above or below a comparison score. I think it is important to note that the key transition points — fifth, eighth and 11th grades. We are above the state in English language arts and math in grade eight, and on the state average in both ELA and math for grades five and 11.

“We think this bodes well as we prepare students for the next level of their education,” Kunin said. “Some of the variance at lower grade levels may be in part a mismatch of the timing of our curriculum with state assessments. It is encouraging to see that by middle school our students are at or above their peers statewide, though we do aim to do much better.

Kunin said comparatively stronger results on the language test reflects South Portland’s support for literacy programs, while the strong science results may be traceable to the district’s emphasis in recent years on project-based, “hands-on” learning.

“While encouraged that we surpassed the state average in math at grade seven and eight, we see this as an area in need of improvement given our overall results,” Kunin said. “We believe our proficiencybased work at the middle school level, which promotes more purposeful and rigorous instruction, has helped with our stronger performance in middle school. We are currently continuing our implementation of proficiency based learning K-12. Together with a focus on our math instruction and targeted intervention and support for students, we believe this will be an area for growth in the years ahead at all levels.”

By contrast, over in Cape Elizabeth, Superintendent Meredith Nadeau was more dismissive of the testing scores.

“Essentially, I would say our participation rates at the eighth grade and high school level were too low for us to draw any conclusions from the data, particularly as the state announced that it was changing assessments during the last three days of participation for our eighth-graders,” she said, noting that 70 percent of juniors and 36.5 percent of eighth-grade students declined to take the test.

“This data is one picture of our overall performance, and, given the limited data from this assessment and our limited exposure to this assessment, we are viewing it in the context of other data points such as the SAT, where our students continue to perform well above the state average in mathematics as juniors,” Nadeau said.

As Nadeau noted, there exists a seeming Catch-22 involving standardized testing. While parents have a right to opt their children out of the tests, federal law under the No Child Left Behind Act requires that at least 95 percent of all students take a standardized test, in hopes of measuring teacher performance. The U.S. Department of Education has said federal subsidy dollars could be at risk if that threshold is not met.

In May, amid complaints that some school districts were failing to advise parents of their rights, allegedly to avoid falling below the 95 percent threshold, the Legislature rejected a bill that would have forced schools to tell parents clearly and unequivocally that their children do not have to take a standardized test. However, that didn’t mean legislators were in love with the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium model. Despite the reported cost to implement it in Maine — an estimate that ranges from $2.7 million to $3.5 million, depending on the source — the Legislature voted in June to scrap it.

School districts statewide complained the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium test was too long, the computer program was not user-friendly, some questions were poorly worded and incorrect tests were administered in some districts. Since testing this past spring, Connecticut and Missouri have joined Maine in dropping out of the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium.

Some parents have balked at the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium because it contains elements of Common Core – an initiative that seeks to maintain equal educational standards across all 39 participating states.

But for many parents, there were more compelling reasons to object to the test — it was just too hard, particularly on special needs students

The SBAC test was said to take seven hours to administer. It replaced both the SAT, previously used to measure achievement among high school juniors, and the New England Common Assessment Program, given to lower grades. Those tests had been pencil-and-paper affairs, generally with multiple-choice answers. The Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium test, by contrast, was done entirely on computer, with students compelled to work through multilayered problems using graphs and other tools. The idea was to force students to think critically, in keeping with the new Common Core standards recently adopted into the Maine Learning Results requirements for high school graduation. Those standards attempt to move students away from rote memorization of facts and data and into a realm in which they demonstrate reasoning skills, which, it is felt, will better prepare them for college and, eventually, the modern workforce. In other words, students had to show they could work through a problem, not just that they knew, or could successfully guess, the answer.

“This was a huge challenge for Maine schools, and they met it with remarkable skill,” said Maine Department of Education Acting Director Tom Desjardin, in a release accompanying the testing results. “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.”

Still, many students simply sat out the test. As Nadeau observed, just 30 percent of students at the high school took the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium math test, while slightly more, 31.3 percent, sat for the literacy version. At Gorham High School, participation dropped below 20 percent for literacy and 16 percent for math. And, at Yarmouth High School, fewer than 10 percent of students bothered to take either test.

By contrast, 80.5 percent of South Portland High School students took the literacy test, 82.3 percent completed the math test. Participation elsewhere in the district ranged from 93 to 100 percent.

In a press release circulated on Sept. 11, the day after the state released testing data, the Maine Education Association, the labor union that represents most Maine teachers, downplayed the scores and the value of standardized testing in general.

“Our students are more than a test score — a test score is just one piece of the puzzle,” said MEA 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.”

Locally, however, Kunin said South Portland staffers will take a hard look at the results, despite the fact that scores cannot be compared to last year’s annual testing results, due to the vast differences in testing methods, and the fact that an entirely new test will be given in 2016.

“We aim to develop students who can read, write and reason at a high level,” Kunin said. “Reflection on our scores will give us one piece of data to use as we work to fashion plans for improvement in all of our schools.”

On the plus side for public school advocates in South Portland, the imminent switch to a third statewide test in as many years means the controversial letter-grading of individual schools initiated by Gov. Paul LePage and put on hold until the Department of Education has two years of comparable data, will be on hiatus for at least one more season.

As for what next year’s statewide test might look like, that remains to be seen.

The Maine DOE this past week issued a request for proposal soliciting offers from companies willing to design a new statewide assessment test. Bids are due to the state by Sept. 29. After review by a special panel, the state is scheduled to open negotiations with a potential vendor by the end of October, kicking off a timeline to statewide testing of students next spring. All that is known at this point, DOE officials have said, is that the new test will again be computerized and, because it centers on the proficiency-based standards found in the Maine Learning Results, it will continue to contain elements of Common Core.

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