Education

Waivers, assessment changes make difficult comparisons of education outcomes in Maine during pandemic

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For the last two school years, Maine has received a waiver from the federal government exempting it from federal reporting requirements related to assessment and accountability.

As part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by former president Barack Obama in 2015, which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, states are required to develop and submit academic standards to the federal Department of Education (DOE). To promote accountability, states are also required to regularly submit data on assessments and other metrics that show they are meeting standards.

Because of widespread school closures caused by COVID-19, as well as other pandemic-related challenges, the federal DOE offered waivers for some reporting requirements to states in March 2020.

“Given the widespread, extended school closures, I know many States will be unable to administer their statewide assessments to all students in the spring of 2020. As statewide accountability systems rely on fair, reliable and valid assessment results, I also recognize that States that do not administer their assessments will also not be able to annually meaningfully differentiate among public schools or identify schools for support and improvement” as required under the law, wrote Betsy Devos, the former Secretary of Education, in a letter sent to all 50 states.

Devos further wrote that she was inviting states to request a waiver for assessment, accountability and school identification, and certain assessment and accountability reporting requirements outlined in the law for the 2019-2020 school year.

The federal DOE also provided a template states could use to submit a request to have requirements waived. It allowed states to request a waiver from administering all assessments required by ESSA for the 2019-2020 school year.

It also allowed states to request the ability to waive the law’s requirements related to meaningful differentiation of public schools,  the identification of schools for comprehensive and targeted support and improvement, and additional targeted support and improvement based on data from the 2019-2020 school year.

States could also request a waiver for report card provisions based on assessment and accountability measures in the law based on data from the 2019-2020 school year. The list of provisions schools could waive included accountability system description, assessment results, other academic indicator results, English language proficiency assessment results, school quality or student success indicator results, progress toward meeting long-term goals and measurements of interim progress, percentage of students assessed and not assessed, number and percentage of students with the most significant cognitive abilities taking an alternate assessment, and information showing how students in local educational agencies performed on academic assessments as compared to students in each school in the state.

The waiver template also required states to certify that any school identified for comprehensive or targeted support and improvement for the 2019-2020 school year would maintain its status in the state’s support and improvement plan for the 2020-2021 school year. It further required states to affirm that state education agencies would provide public notice and opportunity to comment on the waiver request.

On March 27, 2020, Maine DOE commissioner Pender Makin received a letter from the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education within the federal DOE approving the state’s request for a waiver. Maine requested and received a waiver for all available reporting categories. 

Maine also received a waiver from certain ESSA reporting requirements for the 2020-2021 school year.

As with the previous year, the waiver included accountability and school identification requirements and some report card requirements. While the number of reporting requirements that were waived for the 2020-2021 school year were fewer than the previous year, they included academic indicator results for schools other than high schools, school quality or student success indicator results, and progress toward meeting long-term goals and measurements of interim progress.

“The pandemic has presented uneven challenges statewide and many COVID-related variables would impact data trends, and ultimately diminish public trust in our accountability system. That said, the application of our accountability model to determine a new list of schools in need of support at this point would provide a false construct upon which to base resource allocations,” Commissioner Makin wrote in her waiver request.

The Maine DOE hosts a dashboard containing data it is required to report through ESSA on its website, which notes the information is incomplete because of the pandemic, and that the state received a waiver.

The dashboard also notes that student performance on state standardized tests for language arts and mathematics pre-pandemic and post-pandemic is not comparable because Maine began using a new test. From 2015 through 2019, Maine used the “eMPowerME” assessment. After suspending testing during the pandemic, Maine began using an assessment called MAP Growth, produced by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), when testing resumed in spring 2021.

The test is computer-based and scales the grade level of test questions to a student’s responses, which the DOE says allows student achievement levels to be tracked over multiple years.

According to the dashboard, the change in tests is the “direct result of the pandemic and need for Maine educators to have immediate access to assessment data to inform teaching and learning regardless of the mode of instruction.”

Though the state began administering the NWEA test in spring 2021, Maine DOE didn’t make publicly available all data from the assessments administered. The data was shared with schools and families who attend them. 

According to NWEA, in spring 2021 and “throughout the 2021-2022 school year, Maine schools will have interim, local assessment data available to support classroom instruction and instructional decision making.” 

MainePublic reported in November 2021 that one of the reasons the state sought a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year was because results from its new assessment cannot be directly compared to data from previous years.

According to the state’s ESSA dashboard, 13.1 percent of students for whom the state has results for the 2020-2021 school year performed above expectations on English language arts standardized testing. A further 71.9 percent of students met expectations and 15 percent performed below expectations. The testing metric for English language arts includes the results of 79,277 students. 

For the 2020-2021 school year, nine percent of students performed above expectations on mathematics standardized testing. A further 72.3 percent met expectations and 18.7 percent performed below expectations. The testing metric for mathematics includes the results of 79,705 students. 

The NWEA assessments for mathematics and English language arts are required in both the fall and spring for students in grades three through eight and in the third year of high school. For the 2020-2021 school year, the Maine DOE reported 90,566 students enrolled in public schools in grades required to take the assessment.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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