AUGUSTA — With a strong push from Lewiston parents and educators, a growing rebellion against the test-taking rules adopted at both the state and federal levels aims to make it easier for students to sit out the exams.

They’re prodding lawmakers to do more to let parents know they’re free to opt out from having their children take the lengthy and sometimes anxiety-inducing assessments.

The law, though, has a strange twist. While it explicitly allows parents to keep their children from participating in the standardized exams, it also mandates that at least 95 percent of students actually take them.

The two provisions clearly have the potential to work in opposite directions, which is exactly what’s happened in Lewiston and some other communities.

Last May, for example, 18 percent of Lewiston school students opted out of taking the Maine Educational Assessment, Superintendent Bill Webster said. More than two out every five eighth-graders declined to take the test, he said Friday.

For Molly Dorner, a longtime teacher, that’s a good thing.

“There are countless tests that are being administered and it is impacting learning,” she testified to the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

“The time that is being taken away are hours of quality teaching time that students need. I strongly feel that testing needs to be reduced drastically so the joy of learning can be returned to the classroom,” Dorner said.

Benjamin Martin, a Lewiston school board member, said testing “is by far the biggest issue that gets brought to my attention by parents, teachers and students.”

Sen. Nate Libby, a Lewiston Democrat, is pushing a new bill to make it easier for parents to pull their children out of the testing regimen statewide. He said he knows parents and students who are “fearful, frustrated and seeking relief from these heavy-handed testing mandates.”

But if parents pull out their children in large numbers, Maine could wind up in hot water with federal regulators who insist that at least 19 out of 20 students must take the exams. States that fall short may wind up with less federal aid and more red tape.

The federal law requiring the testing is a 2015 measure called the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. Both mandated statewide tests to determine how schools stack up in their mission of educating America’s youngsters.

The data collected, though, is used in a variety of ways in different schools, districts and states, from comparing them against each other to tracking the performance of individual students from year to year. Some places evaluate teachers using the data.

Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer at the state Department of Education, said that “legislators at both the state and federal levels” require her department to ensure schools are “successful or progressing” based on annual assessments of students with the expectation that at least 95 percent of them take the test.

“This high level of participation ensures that reliable conclusions can be made about the success and progress of students, as well as identify the needs of schools to be successful,” Tome said. “The same elements need to be assessed for school districts and the state as a whole.”

If the state fails to have enough students take the tests, she said, it could face loss of some federal education aid and other difficulties.

Since the state is trying to encourage participation, “providing a formal process for parents to excuse their students from assessment without any consequences for students, parents, schools or districts” would undermine the effort and likely put Maine out of compliance with federal regulations, Tome said.

“To design and promote a means of excusing a student from these assessments will certainly send the wrong message to parents, students, districts” and federal education officials, she said.

Dick Durost, the executive director of the Maine Principals Association, also urged lawmakers to drop the measure.

He said that while “many educators believe that we are excessively testing students” because of state and federal mandates, they also recognize that as long as the exams are required “we must strive to have as many students tested as possible.”

“Limited results skew the assessment of teaching and learning,” he said, especially “if savvy parents of high-achieving students opt out, resulting in school testing numbers appearing to be much worse than they are.”

Durost said that without “an honest, comparable playing field,” public perceptions could be skewed and evaluations of teachers and administrators undermined.

But Lewiston’s school board has a different take entirely. Its members voted unanimously to back Libby’s proposal — and its youngest member, Luke Jensen, called the proposal “awesome.”

Francis Gagnon, a Lewiston school board member, said he believes that too much testing bored his oldest son and undermined his learning.

“We were ready to leave Lewiston public schools when our voices were finally heard” after his family learned of the possibility of opting out of the tests,  he said. Once they did, he said, his son “began to learn at an accelerated rate.”

“Opting out has made a significant difference in my family and I’m sure I’m not alone,” Gagnon told legislators. “Stop penalizing students, communities and school systems and allow our teachers to teach.”

Jacynthe Jacques of Lewiston, who chose for her children to opt out, said she has “never heard of standardized tests keeping students engaged and wanting to learn, of giving students reasons to come to school every day, of making students feel smart, but I have heard about, and seen, plenty of teachers doing just that.”

She said the time spent getting ready for tests and taking them would be better spent reading and learning.

Martin said he realized one Saturday afternoon “just how important this issue” is when he spoke to four recently retired teachers. All of them told him that “overreliance on standardized tests was a contributing factor to leaving the field early.”

“They had seen so much change over the course of their careers,” he said, “but the push to standardized test all kids, combined with using these results to evaluate schools and educators, pushed them over their limit.”

The president of the Maine Education Association, Lois Kilby-Chesley, called Libby’s measure “the right bill at the right time.”

She said that providing an easy way to opt out “will, hopefully, protect parents from pressure to have the child tested. There are certainly many reasons a parent might have in making this decision, ranging from the stress level of the child when in a testing situation, to parental beliefs about the value of standardized testing, to privacy issues, to an individual child’s needs and best interests.”

“More than once during testing I had children burst into tears at not knowing an answer,” Kilby-Chesley said. “Children come to school with many anxieties both real and perceived. Parents know their children best and should be allowed to make the testing decision.”

Jody Raio, a parent in Topsham, said the bill “will empower parents to make the right choice for their children. For children who suffer from anxiety, parents can relieve them of this unneeded stress.”

“The twin costs of lost classroom time and the millions it costs for these tests are reasons enough to oppose the use of high-stakes standardized testing,” Matthew Roy of Lewiston said. “Creating a single form for all to use, removing penalties on students and districts, and allowing teachers to explain the opt-out process to penalties without fear are all reasons to support this bill.”

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: