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U.S. slams Maine student testing


By Beth Quimby

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT of Education says Maine is not complying with federal law because it hasn't shown that the tests measure whether students are achieving established goals.

MAINE HAS 20 DAYS to convince the federal government its tests are adequate or the state Department of Education will lose $113,000 in administrative funding.

Federal officials are threatening to withhold money from the Maine Department of Education for failing to show that its student achievement tests are adequate.

The U.S. Department of Education notified Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Thursday that Maine was out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a sweeping education reform law aimed at holding schools accountable for student performance. Gendron announced the finding Friday.

Federal officials said $113,000 that Gendron's office receives to help administer Title I funding could be withheld and diverted directly to school districts. The federal department is threatening to withhold as much as $500,000 if the state refuses to comply.

A total of $50 million in Title 1 money is sent to Maine school districts to help low-income children with reading and math skills.

Gendron said Friday she is confident that new data being put together by her staff will satisfy federal officials that Maine achievement tests effectively measure student performance. "We believe this additional evidence will change Maine's status," she said.

Gendron questioned whether the states are being reviewed consistently, and said other state education commissioners share her concerns.

Under No Child Left Behind, a state may use any achievement test it chooses as long as it shows that it effectively measures the state's learning standards. Maine has failed to do that and has 20 days to show why the funds should not be withheld.

"This is basic stuff," said Michael Sentance, the regional representative for the U.S. education secretary.

The threat of sanctions followed a periodic review of Maine's system of standards and assessments. Federal officials first notified Maine of problems with its system in April. During its last review, in 2003, Maine's system received approval.

Sentance said no other New England state has received a threat of sanctions. It is unclear how many states nationwide have failed to win approval for their assessment systems.

Maine's use of the SAT and its failure to show how the test measures students' achievement is a particular concern, Sentance said.

Maine started administering the SAT, a standardized college entrance examination, to high school juniors this year instead of the Maine Educational Assessment test. The MEA is now given to students in third through eighth grades.

Gendron pushed for the change, claiming it would motivate more students to apply to college and free up more time for instruction. The SAT is a one-day examination, while the MEAs are administered over several days.

Federal officials said that because the SAT does not measure science knowledge, the state must come up with a science test for high school students.

They also faulted the technical quality of tests given to disabled and non-English speaking students, as well as several other parts of Maine's assessment system.

Gendron said she had discussed with federal officials the state's switch to the SAT and received no indication that there would be problems showing federal officials how well the test measures high school achievement.

Maine may use the SAT, Sentance said, as long as it proves the test measures progress toward the state's learning standards. Five states currently use the ACT test, another college entrance test, and have been able to demonstrate how it matches up with their learning standards.

If Maine cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of the SAT as measuring tool, the state must add questions that fairly reflect what Maine students are supposed to know.

"Obviously, there is a cost to that," he said.

Those who criticized the switch to the SAT said this week's federal action shows how ineffective the test is as a measure of achievement. The SAT measures college aptitude, not knowledge, critics say.

Sen. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, introduced a bill earlier this year to delay the switch and to study that issue further. It failed in the Senate by two votes.

"The very concerns I had about the SAT and why I put the bill in have now been raised again in the review by the Department of Education," he said Friday.

Sentance said the $113,000 will be withheld as long as Maine remains out of compliance. He said the Department of Education could increase that amount if Maine refuses to come into compliance.

bquimby@pressherald.com


— Beth Quimby
Portland Press Herald
2006-07-01


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