AUGUSTA — Despite opposing standardized tests, the head of the state teachers union agrees with Maine education officials that to meet federal requirements, teacher evaluations must be based partly on student scores on the state’s annual assessment test.

That differs with current state law, which simply says that all Maine teachers must be evaluated based on student scores, leaving it up to local schools to determine which scores to use. But that language has run afoul of federal requirements, according to the state education officials who spoke Thursday in support of L.D. 692, a bill from Gov. Paul LePage.

Without the change to using the state’s assessment test, Maine could lose its waiver on some requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, more formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA.

Anita Bernhardt, the Maine Department of Education’s director of standards and instruction, told lawmakers Thursday at a public hearing on LePage’s bill that her department “has carefully considered the U.S. Department of Education concerns and is purposely proposing revisions that we judge will meet but not exceed the U.S. DOE’s threshold needed for approval.”

The head of the Maine teachers union agreed that student assessment scores should be used as part of teacher evaluations, despite generally opposing the use of so-called “high stakes” testing. The hearing before the Education Committee didn’t address what percent of teacher evaluations would be based on students’ annual assessment scores, known as the Smarter Balanced tests.

Standardized tests, some educators argue, are an indicator more of the socio-economic status of a school district than the quality of teaching.

“MEA knows there is one change that is now required by the U.S. DOE to maintain an ESEA waiver. That change is a very difficult one for MEA to swallow,” Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley told the committee. “However, MEA cannot be the blocker to Maine’s ESEA waiver.”

The Obama administration announced in 2011 that it would give No Child Left Behind waivers to states that adopted certain education standards, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. In exchange, states would get flexibility from some of the core tenets of the law, such as that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Several states either never applied for the waivers, or have lost their waivers over the very issue Maine is facing. Maine got its waiver in 2013, following more than 40 other states.

DISAGREEMENT ON MOST PRESSING ISSUES

More than a dozen people, mostly teachers and some students, spoke against the governor’s bill Thursday. They said they did not think the Smarter Balanced test was a good test and objected to student scores being used to evaluate teachers.

Kilby-Chesley said the MEA opposed other parts of the governor’s bill, such as eliminating language from current law that says teachers cannot be evaluated 100 percent by any one measure, but must be evaluated on multiple measures.

Some teachers speaking in opposition to the bill Thursday said they thought that change might open the door to teachers being evaluated 100 percent on student scores on the state’s Smarter Balanced tests.

The original language in a teacher evaluation bill put forward by the LePage administration last session sought to have at least 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ state assessment results, but that requirement was eliminated during the legislative process.

Conservative lawmakers have pushed for teacher evaluations tied to student scores, a move now widely accepted by educators as well. But teachers unions have opposed tying evaluations to specific state assessment or standardized tests, saying there are many other models that could be used. Those models include having an individual teacher evaluated on a review of the body of her students’ work, or having an entire grade or school’s scores be averaged to a single score that is then used as the score for all teachers in that grade or school.

Bernhardt, the state’s director of standards, told committee members that all the changes in the proposed bill reflected concerns at the federal Department of Education and that all were needed in order to avoid losing the waiver.

Kilby-Chesley and Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who were both on the state’s conference calls with federal officials, said that was not their interpretation of what the federal agency expected. Both said their understanding was that the only urgent issue, with a March 31 deadline for a response to the federal DOE, was that the state assessments must be one component of teacher evaluations. Other issues were less pressing, they said, and could be addressed in the upcoming months, giving the state time to consider how to make those changes.

Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who was also on the call, told Millett that he didn’t agree with her characterization of the call and that it was something the committee could discuss in an upcoming work session on the bill.

“It’s just a difference in perception,” Kilby-Chesley said after the hearing.

IMPACT OF LOSING ‘NO CHILD’ WAIVER

She also questioned whether it would be so bad to lose the waiver, telling the committee that other states without waivers have not reported big problems.

Maine education officials said that if the state loses the waiver, every Maine school being labeled as failing because students are not at 100 percent proficiency – a standard experts agree is unattainable – must set aside 20 percent of its Title I funds for supplemental education services.

Maine gets about $50 million in Title I funds for schools that have a certain number of students from low-income backgrounds.

Several states do not have a waiver, accepting the penalty from the federal government. Among them are Vermont, Washington, North Dakota, Utah and California.

“We’ve been very happy (without a waiver), and the price you pay is relatively small,” Richard Zeiger, the chief deputy superintendent in California, told Education Week in an interview in July. He said California applied for a waiver and was rejected because of the same conflict over teacher evaluations facing Maine.

“We’ve spent much less time looking over our shoulder and looking at what the federal government is doing. It enabled us to strike our own pathway,” Zeiger said.

Several teachers at the hearing Thursday objected to the other proposed changes, saying they undermined local efforts to set up their own teacher evaluation standards.

“If the changes proposed in (the governor’s bill) are passed unchanged, much of the hard work in Augusta will have to be redone,” said Jeff DeJongh, a science teacher at the city’s Cony High School who also serves on the committee to set that school’s teacher evaluation standards. He said Cony’s group is already piloting its own system and “the proposed changes … go way too far in trying to address the U.S. DOE’s concern for Maine to maintain the ESEA waiver.”

 

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CORRECTION: This story was updated on March 6, 2015, at 2:24 p.m. to correct the date of Education Week’s interview with Richard Zeiger.