In leaving her job as the state’s education chief more than eight months before a new administration is seated in Augusta, Susan Gendron is taking a leap that she believes will benefit students across Maine and much of the nation.

Gendron has accepted a position as policy director for a newly formed consortium of as many as 45 states that will seek an estimated $160 million federal grant to develop a common assessment program for kindergarten through high school.

The shared testing program will be based on new common core learning standards, which have been developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The shift toward common standards and testing is a step beyond the individual and varied learning goals and assessment programs that states have maintained for decades, Gendron said.

“If we’re going to prepare our students to compete in an international arena, we need to be measuring our students against the same standards and using the same assessment tools,” Gendron said.

The shift validates Maine’s advanced use of technology in the classroom and its recent move to test student progress through the regional New England Common Assessment Program, Gendron said.

Gendron was hired by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of three groups of states now competing for $350 million in federal Race to the Top education reform funds that are dedicated to creating common assessment systems. She will step down at the end of this month from the commissioner’s job she started in 2003.

The consortium has received $400,000 in start-up funding from the Ford, Sandler, Nellie Mae and Hewlett foundations, Gendron said. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also has offered to hire consultants to provide technical assistance.

The Obama administration will award one or two assessment grants in September, according to the grant application. If the Smarter Consortium gets a grant, Gendron will have the policy job for four years. Under grant rules, states in the consortium must adopt a common assessment program by the 2014-15 school year.

Gendron’s appointment as Maine’s education commissioner was due to end in January, when Gov. John Baldacci leaves office. She said she also plans to accept a senior fellowship position with the International Center for Educational Leadership in Rexford, N.Y., and will juggle both consulting jobs.

Gendron was tapped for the high-profile consortium position while serving as president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national organization from which she also has stepped down.

Chris Minnich, the council’s initiative director for standards and assessments, said Gendron was a good choice for the policy job.

“Susan has a good relationship with a lot of the commissioners and Maine has been very forward thinking in its approach to much of this,” Minnich said. “We believe in getting a better assessment system into our nation’s schools and she will be working hard to do that.”

Supporters say Smarter standards and assessments will, among other things:

Set clear educational expectations for teachers, students and communities.

Integrate technology and comprehensive testing more fully into the curriculum.

Provide a foundation for teacher training and professional development.

Assess language and math literacy through writing exercises and other means.

Make learning standards and results more accessible to the public.

Promote the use of test results to improve instruction and student performance.

Allow communities to compare student performance from state to state.

“Right now, we can’t do that, and a lot of our test data is based on assumptions,” Minnich said.

Gendron said it’s unclear how Maine’s involvement in developing a common assessment program will affect its pending application for a share of $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funding for education reform in Maine schools.

She said she will stay in touch with Maine education officials to help prepare the application for reform funding and to ease the transition to a new assessment system if the Smarter Consortium wins funding.

“Maine will have a voice at some very influential tables,” Gendron said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]