Linda Stimpson, an ELL teacher at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland, works with three second-graders in a makeshift classroom in May 2019. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic this year have some Maine school districts considering not giving a standardized test for English language learners. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

School districts in Maine are weighing whether to administer a standardized test for English language learners this year amid concerns about the usefulness and logistics of the test during the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools in Biddeford and Lewiston plan to proceed with the annual ACCESS for ELL test this year, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, while the Portland Board of Public Education on Tuesday will consider a resolution to not administer the test.

The federal government requires annual language proficiency assessments, and it was unclear Monday what repercussions, financial or otherwise, districts could face if they don’t administer the test. While no waivers for federally mandated testing have been issued yet for this school year, that could change after the Biden administration takes office on Jan. 20.

The districts that plan to give the exam said it’s helpful in tracking students’ growth. They believe this year’s the testing data will still prove useful even though students’ performance will likely reflect the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Meanwhile, the resolution that Portland will consider Tuesday points to the challenges of administering the test during the pandemic, including the fact many of the district’s ELL students are learning remotely, and the significant amount of time it would take to give the test, which would detract from in-person instruction. Superintendent Xavier Botana did not respond to requests for an interview Monday.

“Portland Public Schools educators who work with students who are English language learners have expressed serious concerns about the value of the assessment, particularly this year, in the context of the pandemic as students have had significant interruptions to their learning,” reads the draft resolution.

The debate over whether to administer the test for ELL students comes amid a larger debate about standardized testing during the coronavirus pandemic. Last spring the federal government granted testing waivers, but U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has advised that schools should not expect to receive the waivers this year.

It remains to be seen if that will change following a change in administration this month. The Maine Education Assessment, the only statewide assessment taken by all students in grades three through eight and juniors in high school, is typically given later in the spring and no dates have been set yet, while the testing window for the ACCESS test opens this month.

“We do remain hopeful that as a new secretary of education takes the helm, and brings both expertise and experience in education to the position, schools will be encouraged to do what is best for students,” Kelli Deveaux, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email Monday.

Deveaux said Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin has communicated with superintendents who have inquired about ACCESS testing and advised them “to continue doing what they do as exemplary leaders – putting the needs of students and schools above all else.

“If it is feasible and safe to implement the assessments, then go forward with implementation. If implementation will be unfeasible or unsafe, then you cannot be expected to implement. However, it is possible that individual decisions will need to be made based on the district’s capacity for keeping everyone safe and based on the best interests of individual students.”

The number of ELL students in Maine is small, though they make up significant populations in some of the state’s largest districts, including Portland, which currently enrolls about 1,052 ELL students, or 16 percent of its 6,500 students. Statewide about 5,305 of Maine’s 172,474 students are English language learners.

About 1,346 students, 26 percent of the population, in Lewiston public schools are English language learners. Thirty-three languages are spoken with the most prevalent language other than English being Somali, followed by Portuguese and Swahili.

Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said he was aware some Maine districts have sought a waiver from the ACCESS test, but Lewiston did not because the federal government had already said it would not be granting waivers. Langlais said the district’s ELL department sees value in the test in that it shows the growth of students and is used to help determine what services they need.

“The real challenge of doing it right now is how cumbersome school is,” Langlais said. “We’re remote this week and that was a decision just made over the weekend. That’s just the unpredictable nature of the times, so holding any standardized test can be challenging.”

Despite logistical challenges, Langlais said his district is planning to proceed with the test. While the federal waiver has not been granted, the Maine Department of Education has extended the testing window through mid-April in response to concerns from districts.

“It’s hard to find a balance right now in everything we’re doing,” Langlais said. “We still need to maintain measures for growth and we’re going into budget season, where it will be important to know how many students need what levels of support. So there are a lot of benefits to having the assessment done.”

In Biddeford, where about 200 students, or 9 percent of the population, are English language learners, Assistant Superintendent Chris Indorf said his district also is planning to administer the assessments and is encouraging families to participate, though they will submit COVID-19 exemptions for students who are learning remotely.

“Our expectation is our kids will participate just like they do every year,” said Indorf, who oversees the district’s English to Speakers of Other Languages  programs. “We think it’s great for those kids and great for their parents to understand their progress and it’s critical for teachers. It’s the only assessment we have to get a sense of where we are in comparison to other similar communities in Maine.”

Portland, meanwhile, has joined with some other districts to advocate to the Maine Department of Education to suspend the administration of the test this year. Superintendents in Westbrook and South Portland, two districts that also have significant numbers of ELL students, did not respond to phone calls or emails Monday.

The resolution in Portland calls on the board to support a plan to await a federal waiver, but absent the waiver, to nonetheless not administer the assessment. The school board would charge the superintendent with working with district educators and other districts “to identify alternative valid and reliable ways to measure English language performance and otherwise ensure that students receive the benefits of programming.”

Deveaux said it is unknown right now what repercussions districts could face if they don’t administer the test.

“The ACCESS is currently Maine’s only qualitative measure of English Language Proficiency,” the department says in a Q&A on its website, noting that administrators, teachers and students use the data to make decisions about programs and services. “The decision to not assess as an entire district would leave that district without a measure by which to exit eligible English learners from ESOL services, which is an infringement on the students’ civil rights.”

School board member Anna Trevorrow said on Monday that she is still looking over the proposed resolution, but is inclined to support the superintendent’s recommendation. “My gut instinct is just this has been a really challenging year to keep kids up to par with standards and it’s kind of an unfair place to put them in to subject them to the same standardized test they normally would take,” she said.

Rohan Henry, an ELL teacher at Portland High School, said he and many of his colleagues are against administering the test this year. In addition to the physical challenge and safety concerns associated with administering a standardized test in person, Henry said he is worried the results could be demoralizing for students who are working as hard as ever but facing unprecedented challenges.

“I don’t think it’s controversial,” Henry said. “Almost unanimously all of us feel that if we went ahead and administered the test it would not be an accurate snapshot of where the kids are. Why I’m saying it’s not accurate is because they did not receive the quality instruction they would have in any other year, and that’s problematic from my point of view.”


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