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Proposal Seeks Clear Language Allowing Maine Parents to Opt Kids Out of Standardized Testing

Jay Field
Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon

AUGUSTA, Maine - A top Democratic lawmaker in the Maine House wants to make sure parents know they have the right to opt their school-age children out of taking standardized tests. Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, is introducing legislation that would require school districts to inform parents of this option.

The Maine Department of Education says it's encouraging districts to tell parents about all of their legal options, including what it says are the many benefits of sitting for the exams.

Students begin taking the Maine Educational Assessment for Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy in less than two weeks. The online exam is supposed to measure how well high school juniors, and students in grades three through eight, are absorbing Maine's version of the Common Core state standards.

For a small but vocal minority of parents, though, the test is one more example of a public education system that's lost its way. "Humans were not meant to be standardized," says Lorri Cahill.

Cahill teaches kindergarten in Skowhegan and has a son who's a junior in high school. She joined other supporters at a State House press event. "I feel there's no longer a balance in our educational system," Cahill said. "As I can attest, education is messy work and can't always be quantified. We must inspire students and meet them where they are. Relying on high stakes testing does nothing to inspire our kids."

After much thought and research, Cahill says she's opting her son out of the MEA test. Previous rulings by the United States Supreme Court give parents in Maine and elsewhere the right to do this.

"But we don't have anything in Maine state law that makes this clear," Rep. Gideon said. Gideon is introducing a bill to clear up confusion - between parents, teachers and school board members - over the right to opt out.

"It requires school districts to inform parents of their rights by posting the information in a public place, like the Internet," Gideon said, "and makes sure that teachers are allowed to notify parents of their rights. And finally, it prohibits the state from penalizing a district when students have opted out of the standardized tests."

"It's kind of redundant. Certainly not requiring of a law," said Tom Desjardin, acting commissioner at the Maine Department of Education.

Desjardin said there are already lots of different ways that parents can find out about how to opt their kids out of the MEA test.  "Forcing the school districts to go to the expense of notifying them, whether in writing, by mail, or by e-mail, is probably unnecessary," he said.

The small, but vocal, opt-out movement puts the Education Department in a tough spot. While the law allows parents to take this step, the federal government also requires that 95 percent of students in a given public school sit for standardized tests.

It's one of the factors that could influence the amount of education funding and flexibility Maine receives from the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. More importantly than that, Desjardin insists, the tests give the state important data on the performance of individual students and schools.

"To the extent a student, or a group of them, opts out of testing in a given school or school district, we lose the quality of the data," he said.

And that, said Desjardin, makes it much harder for officials at the Maine Department of Education to identify schools that are legitimately struggling, and target efforts to help them improve. The bill will next go to public hearing before a legislative committee.