Growing up as a kid in Maine public schools I can recall teachers complaining about the annual standardized tests they gave us, bubble-in pencil style. I remember chuckling pretty hard when I heard them make the argument—no kidding—that “Tests are not a good way to judge people.” Even as a teenager, I was aware enough to ask myself, if this was true, why did every teacher I had from first grade through high school give me tests that made up a major part of my grade?
The fight by teachers’ unions across the U.S. to ensure that scores of these annual assessments are not used in any way in evaluating teacher and school performance has been as much in the forefront of education policy as anything else in recent decades. In this struggle, parents demand some measurable indicators of accountability and progress while teachers’ unions argue against having any statewide tests at all. The reason for testing students each year is to allow the public to measure the quality of learning in their local schools by comparing it with previous years and with other schools.
Thanks to decisions made by the Maine Department of Education (MDOE), parents, taxpayers, school boards, and the public at large no longer have any measures to gauge the progress, or lack thereof, in their local public schools.
Not wanting this information to be available is understandable. As recently as the 2018-19 school year, the results from statewide assessments showed that four in ten students were below or well below expectations in science. Likewise, roughly 44% of all students did not meet expectations in “English Language Arts.” Worst of all, in the enormously important category of mathematics, two out of every three students failed to meet expectations. In our tech dependent world, this is a critical problem.
Fast forward through the pandemic, when parents complained that their children were simply not learning at all in the online classes that local schools cobbled together as best they could in the absence of any statewide strategy. The state found a new assessment that it said better suited the circumstances. The results were remarkable. Suddenly, more than 80% of students at every grade level met the “At or Above Expectations” in math and “English Language Arts.” Strangely, in what had been our students’ best subject, two-thirds of them now scored below expectations in science.
The new assessment was provided by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) and has been used by local schools in Maine for years. However, this was designed to assess each student individually and help inform their teachers about the best approach to help that specific student learn. It was not designed to measure the progress of all students in learning the basic and essential concepts outlined in the state’s education standards. The difference, described as “normative” and “summative” assessments, is common knowledge in the educational profession.
For those who noticed the sudden and amazing leap in student achievement last year, MDOE warned that NWEA is “not the same type of assessment. The student data or results cannot be compared.” However, this is exactly the purpose of annual assessments. Without the ability to compare results from one year to the next, how can anyone determine if schools are improving or declining? This, it turns out, is exactly the point of the new assessment. They cannot. While doing the bidding of the teachers’ union MDOE has left itself unable to determine where added resources are needed, and which schools should receive additional support.
The new scores from these tests did two things quite effectively. First, by removing the data that showed how far from “meeting standards” most students in Maine really are, they muted the criticism that learning was not improving in our schools despite more and more funding aimed at the state’s fewer and fewer students. Secondly, they appeased decades old complaints from teachers’ unions that do not want the public to see the results lest they use them to hold schools accountable.
Upon seeing the new assessment strategy, the U.S. Department of Education recognized what MDOE was up to and cried foul, informing them that it intended to withhold certain federal funds due to the inadequacy of the assessment and labeling Maine schools “high risk.” Though the Trump administration initially took this position, the Biden DOE has continued to hold Maine accountable on the same point. In fact, the insistence on statewide assessments and their use in teacher evaluations has been supported by the last four administrations dating back to George Bush, two of them Republican and two Democrat.
Perhaps the most important feature of the summative assessment is that it reveals student outcomes across demographics. It helps identify, for example, poorer areas, or areas with certain racial makeups, and whether the students there are receiving the same quality of education as those in other areas. This is why President Obama continued to insist on these Bush-era assessment policies and their use in teacher evaluations, because they helped expose the lower quality of education, for example, in poor black neighborhoods in his hometown of Chicago. Maine no longer has this summative tool.
In 2015, the Obama administration threatened to withhold all $250 million dollars’ worth of federal funding for Maine’s local schools over this same issue. At that time, MDOE staff considered the same NWEA assessment that Maine is now in trouble for using and quickly determined that it did not accomplish the goals now required by four consecutive federal administrations. Surely, there are still staff people at MDOE who remember this exercise and made current Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin aware of it. If not, the assessment staff clearly understands the nature of their work and must have informed Makin of the shortcomings of her preferred instrument.
Last week, Makin admitted to the Legislature’s Education Committee that one of the factors considered in making the shift was that teachers complained about the annual assessments. She also admitted that MDOE spent $10 million on the useless assessment despite knowing that NWEA “would not be a valid way to assess schools,” then testified that USDOE has “never sanctioned another state in this way,” acknowledging that Maine’s strategy is uniquely inappropriate. This could be because every other state understands the difference between assessment types and knew better than to try to put one past the experts at USDOE.
Having removed the ability of taxpayers and school board members to judge whether their local school is improving or not in relation to previous years or to other schools in the state, MDOE has done the bidding of the teachers’ union and in doing so, risks the loss of federal funds and earned the designation of our schools as “high risk.”
The Maine Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union, claims to be “the voice of education professionals in Maine,” though its membership does not include all teachers and other education professionals. Far from it.
In fact, one of the members of the Education Committee who asked pointed questions of Commissioner Makin at last week’s meeting is Rep. Sheila Lyman (R-Livermore Falls), a retired thirty-six-year classroom teacher. This is Lyman’s second term in the Legislature and the MEA has endorsed her opponent in both of her elections, even though neither opponent was a teacher.
This is not the only time the Mills administration has done the bidding of the MEA. During the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Maine in 2020, Makin wrote to MEA leaders, “If you all have any specific guidance you’re sharing, we’d love to match your collective message!” indicating that MDOE was eager to allow the MEA to take the lead in the state’s communication strategy. This cozy relationship between the MEA and MDOE, has done little for educators. One study last year ranked Maine 44th out of 50 states for teachers for the second year in a row.
In response to a question from one incredulous legislator, who inquired, “Are you saying our test scores aren’t dipping?” Makin replied “It depends which test scores.” Having put Maine on the naughty list with USDOE risking federal money and implementing an assessment program that doesn’t even attempt to accomplish what is intended, Makin has denied the public and educational decision makers the information they need to effectively manage local schools.
In light of the growing public awareness of, interest in, and at times even outrage at what is happening in Maine’s local schools of late, MDOE’s strategy of effectively eliminating statewide assessments will only further erode the trust between parents, local school boards, and the state’s educational establishment which, more and more, seems to be advocating for an agenda that is far removed from the goals and wishes of Maine families.