AUGUSTA — Tom Desjardin, Maine’s acting education commissioner, has met with Lewiston parents opting their students out of standardized tests. And he’s talked to teachers across Maine who complain there’s too much “high-stakes” testing.

But Desjardin defends the Maine Educational Assessment, a state-mandated test that 100,000 Maine students are taking. The MEA is “misunderstood,” he said.

It does require 7½-plus hours of classroom testing a year for each student, plus more time to learn how to take the exam on a computer. But that is a small price for data Maine receives “that help us determine where to send help, where to send money,” Desjardin said.

“What would happen if every student at a Maine school scored a zero on the test?” he said. “What are the stakes? There aren’t any.” 

To parents who say they don’t need a test to show them where their children are academically, Desjardin said the MEA may not directly benefit the children, but it may benefit schools.

A good teacher may let them know where their child stands, Desjardin said. But there are 16,000 teachers in Maine.

“We don’t know where the teaching is good, bad and otherwise,” he said. “I have an obligation. I swore an oath. I need to make sure the kids in Fort Kent, Lewiston and Kittery are getting the same opportunities for a quality education. The only way I know how, and it’s not perfect, that they’re getting the same opportunity is if they all take the same tests and I compare their answers.”

When a school is under performing, it’s not fair to the students, Desjardin said. “We send help.”

If 5 percent or more of students don’t take the test, the federal government may keep some of the $155 million it sends to Maine each year to schools in need, he said.

Maine’s Chief Academic Officer Rachelle Tome said the state needs test data to show the money is being put to good use.

Opting out will “invalidate the data,” Desjardin said. “We would no longer be able to say with reliability these are the schools we need to send help (to).”

Desjardin: Change driving controversy

Standardized tests, including the MEA, have been around for years. The anti-test movement, according to parents, is fueled by too much testing, which takes away from classroom learning.

Desjardin blames the controversy partly on changes this year, including:

* The so-called MEA “Smarter Balanced” test is more difficult. Questions in it come from teachers and educators from 15 states.

* For the first time, students are taking the MEA on computers, which makes some students uncomfortable. “Thirteen years after giving kids laptops, we’re finally going to use them for testing,” Desjardin said. That is allowing schools more flexibility. The paper tests were administered over several weeks; districts now have two and a half months to give the tests.

* The MEA is aligned with Common Core standards. “There’s a group who doesn’t like the Common Core,” Desjardin said. “They’ll never be happy with the test no matter what you tell them. There are other groups who don’t like testing.” Those critics have taken advantage of the animosity “by inventing a crisis to damage testing, period.”

In response to parents who have seen some of the test questions and say they are too difficult and confusing, state officials say those questions were on the practice test — which was made available to the public — not the actual test. The practice test was designed to see if new computer commands work.

However, Tome acknowledged, the new MEA is a more difficult test.

“We know from businesses and colleges our students are not ready,” Tome said. “The standards are more intense. We’re asking for more higher-order thinking.”

Part of the MEA is now interactive. If a student answers a question correctly, they get another question more difficult. If they answer it wrong, they get an easier question.

“We’ve heard the test doesn’t drop down far enough to make the question easier,” Desjardin said. “Some work needs to be done; the test is not perfect.”

Regardless, the MEA is not about judging students or teachers, Desjardin said. Teachers have complained that the test will get them fired. “They will not be disabused of that notion no matter how hard you try.”

Maine does have a new law that says student test scores will be considered in teacher evaluations, but no teacher will be fired because of scores, Desjardin insisted.

“We all sat in the room and negotiated the law,” he said. “It says the scores are one of multiple measures to be considered.”

Opting out a ‘disservice to Lewiston’

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said parents have asked the Lewiston School Department to lead the charge in opting out. That fight is at the state and federal level, he said.

Overall, opting out “is a real disservice to Lewiston,” Webster said. “I feel we’re hurting Lewiston students.”

Lewiston is at risk of losing some of the $2.5 million it received from the federal government to provide teacher coaches ($500,000), and $2 million for Title I funds to help teach poorer students, Webster said.

Parents have pooh-poohed that argument, saying it won’t happen. But the rules are clear, he said: If the student participation rate in the test is less than 95 percent, a school could lose federal money.”

And like it or not, test scores determine state-issued school grades from A to F.

Letter grades will not be issued this year because of the changes. When the school grades resume, fewer high-achieving students taking the test means Lewiston stands to receive lower scores and lower grades, Webster said.

He already hears parents say they don’t want their children going to a certain school because of a low grade. “More than any other community, Lewiston needs all of its students to participate in this assessment.”

Desjardin and Webster don’t disagree that students are given a lot of tests, but there will be less testing next year, Webster said.

“We’re doing away with the Northwest Evaluation Association test, which will save $60,000,” he said. “And he’d like to see parents lobby to junk the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s not helpful to Lewiston teachers and it involves a lot of student hours, he said. “I’d like to get rid of that one.”

But the MEA is appropriate, Webster said. “It’s going to give us helpful information assessing where we are as a district.”

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