The Department of Education is pushing ahead with a plan to have all 11th-graders take the SAT on April 1, despite objections from some educators and legislators, who say the standardized test usually required only of college-bound students may not work for everybody.

“It’s one more time where the Department of Education has done a ‘ready, fire, aim,'” said Jay Readinger, new Wiscasset Superintendent of Schools, who used to work in the department. Schools are being told “here’s what we’re going to do. Now let’s sort out the details,” he said.

“The SAT is a valid test for what it does, which is predict a student’s ability to do college work,” Readinger said. “We in the schools still have serious questions about whether it is closely enough aligned with Maine Learning Results to determine how well we’re teaching to those standards.”

The department’s plan is to replace the homegrown Maine Educational Assessment or MEA test with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, more commonly known as the SAT, for 11th-graders.

The MEAs have been given in the 4th, 8th and 11th grades to test how well students are mastering skills outlined in the Maine Learning Results – a set of standards that outlines what students should know in subject areas at varying grade levels. The tests also are used to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind act, which requires schools to make progress every year in improving their scores.

Under the department’s plan, the SAT would be used for 11th-graders, since an estimated 75 percent of high school students already take the test.

The department believes that eliminating one MEA would relieve pressure on teachers, who testified in the last legislative session that testing requirements were eating up their teaching time. It is also hoped that if more kids take the SAT, more will consider going onto college.

“It’s not clear to me at all that simply by having more students taking the SAT there will be a groundswell of students going to college,” said Majority Leader Sen. Michael Brennan, D-Cumberland. Brennan has a bill into to delay the switch from the MEA to the SAT for one year. He learned last week, however, that bill may be too late.

“Obviously Commissioner Gendron believes she is acting within her authority,” Brennan said, based on legislation passed earlier this year that allowed the department to review testing requirements and recommend changes. “It’s unfortunate. I would have hoped the commissioner would have rethought her decision and taken one year to step back.”

Brennan said emergency legislation can be passed with a two-thirds vote to prevent the switch from going into effect. “I hadn’t wanted to do that,” he said, but it is now a possibility.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said, “it would be very problematic” if emergency legislation is passed blocking the test.

“We would not be able to meet our annual testing process under federal law,” Gendron said, because the development of an MEA for 11th-graders was put on hold when the decision was made to use the SAT.

“I was empowered by the Legislature,” to change the test, Gendron said. “I went to the Education Committee at the end of August. I shared I was going forward with the SAT, and there were no objections expressed. We proceeded to negotiate with the college board and put a stop to the MEA. I can’t turn back at this point.”

State Rep. Barbara Merrill, D-Appleton, a member of the Education Committee, doesn’t believe the decision is irreversible. Her suggestion is the state should appeal to the federal Department of Education for a waiver to not test at the 11th-grade level for one year to give school superintendents and the department a chance to make sure the SAT – or something else – is a good alternative to the MEA.

“It’s being shoved down their throats so fast,” Merrill said. “They’ve been told for years we have to have our own standards and the tests have to measure our own performance. Suddenly we get told ‘bingo – the SAT has a high correlation to Maine Learning Results.'”

Merrill said she knows some will say getting a one-year reprieve from the federal government is impossible.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Merrill said. “With bureaucrats, if there isn’t a will, they’ll tell you there isn’t a way.”

Supt. Readinger, who lives in Merrill’s district, said he’s concerned the 25 percent of students who don’t take the SAT now will not take it seriously, particularly since it’s being given on a Saturday.

“To try to get students in on a Saturday to take a test that they don’t want to take is going to be very difficult,” he said, and under No Child Left Behind a school can be failed if less than 95 percent of the class doesn’t take the test.

His district is very sensitive to such details. Earlier this year, the Wiscasset Elementary School was investigated for possibly coaching students on unreleased test questions and answers. The test results in math and science were invalidated.

The incident, which happened before Readinger came on board, has made him cautious about quick changes to the testing system.

“That came about because of pressure not to be a failing school coupled with very poor direction on how the tests were to be administered,” Readinger said.

Commissioner Gendron said, “We’ve put in place a series of contingency options to ensure that 95 percent will be met by all districts. There’s a makeup day,” and if that doesn’t work, there will be then “another opportunity” to take the test, she said.

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