Maine parents and school districts are just now getting detailed results on last year’s standardized tests, a delay state education officials attribute to first-year growing pains with a new test.
“We did encounter some delays. Some were expected, others were not expected,” said Rachelle Tome, chief academic officer for the Department of Education. “It is not something unusual when implementing a new system.”
Students in grades 3-8 took the 2015-16 assessment tests last spring. And while overall math and English Language Arts – or ELA – results were released in December, schools and parents only got access to a more detailed second wave of results in recent weeks. Those results break down the overall math and ELA scores into subcategories, such as statistics or algebraic thinking for math and reading or writing for ELA.
These detailed results are landing just as the 2016-17 testing period is underway, causing some confusion and difficulty for districts.
Some district curriculum leaders are holding back on sending the results to parents, in part because they are busy giving this year’s test.
“The timing is not good – it’s hitting us both at once,” said Monique Culbertson, the curriculum director at Scarborough Public Schools, which has not sent parents the test results yet. “We want to make sure our teachers and staff have a chance to take a look at those reports. With all the other things on the plate these days, we haven’t done that.”
Standardized tests have long been a sore spot with many parents and educators, who see them as stressful and unnecessary. They take days to complete, yet don’t affect an individual student’s grade at all. Some parents opt out, even though schools need a 95 percent participation rate to meet federal guidelines.
The results are used to monitor the performance of districts and schools and, sometimes, grade-level instruction. They are used when assessing whether to adopt a new math or reading program.
So-called “high stakes” testing can be used to grade schools, or individual teachers, and trigger penalties. In Maine, for example, the test results are part of the state’s new A-F grading system for schools.
That raises the stakes for the tests to go off without a hitch. For years, Maine used the New England Common Assessment Program – or NECAP – test. In 2014 the Maine Department of Education adopted the Smarter Balanced test as part of the adoption of Common Core standards. But teachers reported problems with the test, anti-Common Core advocates lobbied against it, and the Legislature voted to drop the Smarter Balanced test after only one year.
“That was a very sudden change in the spring and summer of 2015,” said Charlene Tucker, the state’s director of assessment and accountability. “That actually is the root of many of the changes and challenges and the timeline impact.”
Just a few months later, in December 2015, the DOE signed a $4.14 million contract with New Hampshire-based Measured Progress Inc. to develop and administer the new tests, known as eMPowerME.
But they had to scramble to create and administer the new test before the end of the 2015-16 school year.
Tucker and Tome say they understand the information is coming out later than usual, but say that overall, the new test is an improvement over Smarter Balanced. The department has created a new online portal for results and is still adding functionality to it, such as the ability to cross-reference the test results with, for example, the students who attended a summer program or were in a particular literacy program. They are still rolling out those new tools, Tome said.
One big change to the test this year is the essay portion. In the 2015-16 test, the essay was combined into reading and writing, but officials said it didn’t work well because it stretched out that portion too long. Students were reading passages, answering questions about those passages, taking a break, then returning to write an essay on the passages.
“There were some issues around directions and actual scheduling,” of the essay portion, said Cindy Nilsen, the assessment coordinator for Portland Public Schools, the largest district in the state. “There (were) problems with the technology. I think the whole state encountered some confusion.”
The Department of Education, hearing about the problems, decided not to include the essay subscore into the overall English and Language Arts score. This year, DOE is creating a standalone essay test, which will be given in May.
“It was the most awkward part of the testing,” said Tucker. “It didn’t work really well and we didn’t end up with good information.”
But the essay score still appears on parents’ reports, causing confusion and prompting some districts to tell parents to disregard that score.
The DOE also changed the time allowed to take the test, which is broken down into six sections, usually administered over five half-day testing sessions. The first year, they did not set a time limit because it was a new test, Tucker said. This spring, students were given time limits on each section, for a total minimal testing time of five hours, 20 minutes. Students could take up to 10 minutes more on any given section, if needed.
In School Administrative District 51, in the Cumberland area, the curriculum director sent a letter to parents referring to “significant technical glitches” in parts of the 2015-16 test and incomplete results data from the state, a reference to the internal-only information that is still being released.
“Once we have this information, each school will be able to review their student’s results. At this time, administrators are best positioned to help you understand your child’s reports, but we can not provide a full picture until we have received all the data,” Sally Loughlin wrote.
Loughlin said she understood these are one-time problems because of a new test, but she had to explain it to parents.
“We lack the data to explain (the scores) to the parent,” Loughlin said, “I do not believe they intended to withhold any information. They simply can’t do everything through the reporting mechanism in the time they had to work with it.”
Tucker said the DOE expects to release the results of the 2016-17 test during the summer for review. She said it was too early to know when they would be released to the public. All the data, including the internal information, is expected to be released at the same time.
Tucker said she was “feeling really good” that the state is now in the second year of using the same test, and that the new reporting system is more robust and flexible. Right now the state cannot compare year-over-year progress because the test is new. The results from the 2017-18 test, given to students in the spring of 2018, will be the first to compare year-over-year progress, she said.
Maine has worked with Measured Progress on state tests for more than 30 years. Before Smarter Balanced, Measured Progress developed Maine’s original state assessments and later administered the New England Common Assessment Program test, which was used after 2009.