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Kids Get "Assessments' As Well As Grades

One Maine teacher referred to the assessment mandate as a "Stalinist" regime imposed on Maine's teachers.

Over the holidays, did your ninth-grade child mention a phenomenon called "common assessments" happening at school? If not, you should know that, beginning with this year's ninth graders, the Local Common Assessment System will directly affect your child's graduation status.

As an English teacher at Boothbay Region High School, I intend this column as merely a "snapshot," based on my own experience and conversations with colleagues within and beyond my workplace.

What is a "common assessment"? It is not part of the federal mandates included in "No Child Left Behind."

MEETING THE STANDARD

A "common assessment," rather, is a task which all grade level teachers of a content area in a local system have designed to find out whether your child possesses the skills of the particular Maine Learning Results "standard" being measured.

The same assessment is then taken by all of the ninth-grade math students, for example, regardless of ability level.

As you may have heard at an open house or conference, under LCAS, no longer will grades like A-minus or D-plus in high school courses be enough for a student to graduate from our public schools.

Instead, students need to score a "3" (meets the standard) or a "4" (exceeds it) on common assessments. A "2" is, effectively, a failing grade. The Maine Department of Education is suggesting that students will need to pass approximately 60 percent of the common assessments in order to graduate.

When students do not pass common assessments the first time, schools are required to offer them a replacement assessment.

How many assessments will your children be taking in any given year of high school? In order for students to have the opportunity to take the recommended eight to 12 assessments per content area (i.e. English, science, etc.) during the four years of high school, teachers will need to implement a minimum of two and probably three per grade level per year.

So, by the end of this year, a ninth grader may have taken as many as 12 assessments.

However, not all districts are reporting out students' LCAS scores in the same way or at the same time.

According to a televised report aired Nov. 30, Brunswick High School is planning to send out two separate report cards for each student this month, one which states scores on "common assessments," and one which provides the traditional letter grades for each class attended.

Boothbay Region High School needs to implement its recently acquired Power School computer storage system before it can begin to send out such dual reports.

A significant concern is how much time the development, implementation and scoring of common assessments is taking from traditional teaching.

The time needed to score student work, which sometimes necessitates that teachers be out of their classrooms and that substitutes be brought in, varies according to the task and the academic discipline. A math task, for example, might take less time to score than, say, an English essay response.

Teachers have different perspectives on the effects thus far of this school "reform."

Some praise the LCAS initiative as a way to ensure that Maine public school students, irrespective of locality, receive effective instruction; others believe that LCAS could, ironically, lower standards through a "lowest common denominator" or a "cookie cutter" approach.

One Maine teacher with whom I spoke at a recent conference referred to the entire assessment mandate as a "Stalinist" regime imposed on Maine's teachers.

Strong words, indeed, but I respect this colleague's judgment (a high percentage of his advanced-placement American Studies students annually pass that national exam).

SOME WON'T GRADUATE

Clearly, the spotlight will be on potentially rising rates of students who will not graduate with their peers.

This unpleasant likelihood raises the question: To what extent will the local political pressure for students to graduate with their peers affect the integrity of the common assessments?

Many teachers speculate that eventually Maine will simply require all teachers to use the same state-sanctioned assessments.

Beyond the issue of their own children's progress toward graduation under LCAS, parents presumably would like to know whether these common assessments will result in students getting a better education.

Mark Gorey (e-mail: lesgorey@gwi.net) is an English teacher at Boothbay Region High School.

— Mark Gorey
Press Herald
2005-01-21


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