July 21, 2013

Maine schools' shift to tougher standards will come with costs

As the state joins others in a transition to 'Common Core,' experts warn it will almost surely mean lower test scores.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Maine has joined 44 other states in adopting the more “rigorous” Common Core educational standards.


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Education Commission Stephen Bowen


In Lewiston, Webster said the shift to Common Core came at an excellent time for his district, since the curriculum was due for an overhaul anyway.

"We have wiped the board clean," said Webster. "We've used it as an opportunity to start with a whole fresh approach.

"We're really taking a look at what we're teaching and how we're teaching it."

It had been so long since the district reviewed the curriculum that not all fourth-graders in one elementary school were learning the same skills being taught at another elementary school, he said.

For the last year, Lewiston has undertaken districtwide analysis and training to prepare for the new standards. As the second-largest district in the state, Lewiston has professional development grant money that can be used for the training and resources it will need, Webster said.

Smaller districts, however, may have a harder time finding the time and money.

"With something like Common Core, we were able to bring in outside consultants that are experts," Webster said. "It's unfortunate that Maine's local control winds up being an impediment to improvement just because of lack of local resources."

But Webster said he has no doubt that the standards are good for both educators and students.

Parents need to know about the changes too, Galin and Kelly said. The transition team held three parent information nights last year, but few parents attended. They plan to have more parent information nights next year.

Based on other states' experiences, it's almost certain test scores will drop initially, and parents and students will have a rough transition.

In Kentucky, the first state to administer Common Core tests, there was a 30 percent to 40 percent drop in proficiency in reading and math, according to results released late last year.

In April, The New York Times reported that many New York students who took the new tests this spring were overwhelmed, failed to finish the test and were reduced to tears in some cases. Some children boycotted the test -- at one school, more than half the eighth-grade class. And that was after the city had launched a "flashy" advertising campaign warning of the higher standards, the Times reported.

Maine students will take their first Common Core tests in 2015.

Maine is among 25 states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium for developing student tests, while 22 states and the District of Columbia are part of another group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. Both equally test whether students meet the new standards, but there are differences.

Maine state officials said they liked Smarter Balanced's online testing, which adjusts to a student's ability in real time. So if a seventh-grader is acing the seventh-grade-level math questions, the test starts feeding the student eighth-grade-level questions. The results also come back in weeks, not months, officials said.

Hupp said students can take practice tests at smarterbalanced.org to get a sense of what the test is like.

But no matter which test is used, Maine will likely see a drop in scores.

Galin said he estimated the impact on Portland students by looking at how they scored on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress test, a harder U.S. Department of Education test that measures U.S. students' results in a more global context.

In 2011, the state assessments found 70 percent of Portland fourth-graders proficient, but that same class got only 32 percent proficiency in the NAEP. Galin expects the same kind of gap with the Smarter Balanced results.

"In Wisconsin and Tennessee, it looks like comparing their (new tests) with their old assessments, the gap is very similar to the gap between the NAEP and the old assessment," Galin said.

"So, it's terrifying. It's terrifying for us as a state," he said.

States can prepare by letting parents and the larger education community know what's coming, Murphy said. In May, Minnesota parents got a letter from State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius warning them that their children may receive lower scores on the new tests. Kentucky also let parents and students know what was coming, and when test scores came out "everyone kept breathing," Murphy said.

So far, Portland teachers are mostly working on understanding how to best adapt, said Kelly.

"The teachers are nervous because change is hard," she said. "They haven't had the time to really process what it means."

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:



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