ROCKPORT — Approximately 90 percent of the Camden Hills Regional High School junior class will not be taking the state’s latest assessment mandate, a 10-hour marathon of standardized testing developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. That’s because their parents exercised a right to excuse their children from the test.
While most educators refer to it simply as the SBAC, the Maine Department of Education’s Maine Comprehensive Assessment System’s Maine Educational Assessment in mathematics and English language arts/literacy requires students spend a minimum of 8.5 hours of screen time on the math and language arts sections alone.
“The testing time is 8 hours and 30 minutes minimum for the English language arts and math combined,” said Camden Hills Assistant Principal Piet Lammert, on April 6. “Minimum is key. The test is actually not restricted to a time limit, so students can take the time they need and are allowed to self-pace breaks of up to 19 minutes at a time, creating the possibility that actual testing time could be significantly greater. Students are also expected to complete the MEA/science assessment, an additional two hours of testing. So the total state testing allotment is a minimum of 10 hours and 30 minutes, plus the self-paced breaks.”
The DOE requires that all third-year students complete the test prior to May 29, but it’s up to each school to determine just where and when to fit the SBAC into an already hectic junior class schedule.
At Camden Hills, more than 100 juniors have already registered for the SAT test scheduled for April 15, and dozens more will be taking the nationally standardized tests for Advanced Placement course in early May.
According to Lammert, many parents felt enough was enough. Only 18 of 163 juniors are taking the SBAC.
“By far, the most common theme was the ill-advised timing relative to the SAT and AP tests, both for the preparation required for the tests and the cumulative impact of 15 or more hours of high-stakes testing clustered in a narrow window of time,” Lammert said, referring to the reasons parents gave for opting out of the test. “Many lamented the loss of the SAT as the federal accountability assessment given that it also benefited students' postsecondary aspirations. ‘If it ain't broke don't fix it’ was a familiar refrain.”
Until this year, the SAT test was used to measure student performance in Maine’s public high schools for federal accountability purposes. While the Maine State Department of Education replaced the SAT with the SBAC for state and federal measurement purposes, most juniors still need to take the SAT for college admission or other post-secondary ambitions.
According to the DOE’s site: “Starting in the spring of 2015, Maine will use the MEA in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, as its annual statewide assessment. This new computer adaptive assessment measures higher-order thinking in Maine’s recently updated standards in mathematics and ELA/literacy.”
On March 17, the DOE’s Acting Commissioner wrote at the state’s education website that the testing was off to a good start, and said, “Unlike the bubble tests of the past, this new assessment measures higher-order thinking and how students actually apply the skills they should be learning and need for 21 century college and career success.”
Parents‘ prerogative to opt-out was a a relatively painless option for the district this year, as the DOE’s grading system for evaluating overall school performance was put on a moratorium. The DOE said at its website: “Please know that the Department has decided not to issue our A-F school report cards in 2015. Because the results of this new assessment will simply not be comparable to those from last year’s tests, we would be unable to calculate overall student growth which is such an important part of a school’s grade. Instead, performance on the new assessment this spring, which will be made available on our public Data Warehouse, will establish a new benchmark. It will only be in the fall of 2016 when we have two years of student achievement data that we will again be able to measure how schools are doing and release the next round of report cards.”
In the future, however, because the system includes test participation rates in its formulaic approach to assessing schools, opt-out numbers like these would almost certainly tag CHRHS as a failing school, regardless of its other achievements and rankings (CHRHS is among the top 10 high schools in the state, according to the latest U.S. News and World Report Best High Schools report).
“The vast majority of parents who contacted me articulated concern that their individual choice to act in their child's best interest would be used against the school in the grading formula,” said Lammert. “Upon learning that they were free to make a decision based solely on what they felt was best for their child, my inbox began filling with opt-outs. Fast forward a year. Assume that the DOE reinstitutes its grading system as has been implied, and assume as well that Camden Hills has similar opt-out rates. In this scenario, CHRHS is a failing school even before the first question is answered. Having failed to reach the minimum 90 percent participation rate [in fact, nearly reaching the inverse], we would be designated with an F by our state government — and be subject to whatever associated sanctions accompany it.”
Lammert noted that the flood of opt-out emails he received began with concerns raised by a parent who felt strongly that the additional testing was not in her child’s best interest.
That initiated a groundswell of parental concern about the necessity of the test.
Camden’s high opt-out rate is the exception rather than the rule. Nearby Oceanside High School East in Rockland had only three students opt out according to Principal Renee Thompson.
A recent story in Maine’s Department of Education Newsletter said the first days of SBAC season were successful, characterizing it with “so far, so good.”
The parent’s right to withdraw their child from the test, however, is unclear, and words like “required” and “mandate” imply that there isn’t a choice when it comes to testing. A few moments spent navigating DOE’s Smarter Balanced web pages and FAQs offer little regarding parents’ right to decide, as does the Smarter Balanced national website.
Letters to parents, posted on the DOE’s website as model communications about the test, discuss potential benefits of the untested test, but make no mention that the test is anything less than mandatory, much less offer parents guidance in exercising their rights to opt-out.
After noting the possible implications of parents’ rejection of the test on the school once the moratorium on the state’s school grading formula is lifted, Lammert posed the question: “What is the test actually testing, and for what purpose?”
If schools fail to to comply with state formula, possible repercussions include pulled funding, administrators and teacher replacements, or otherwise take over a school that has been designated as failing.
The testing consortium, headquartered at UCLA in California, has received more than $175 million from the U.S. Department of Education, millions more from other grant-making organizations, and is earning a growing number of per-pupil fees, there is a lot more at stake than just algebra rankings.
The opening sentence of the DOE’s web page about the Maine Comprehensive Assessment System states: “What is measured matters.”
Some Five Town parents, apparently, disagree.
Reach David Munson at firstname.lastname@example.org