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Why Maine's standardized test scores won't be released to the public this fall

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Each fall, we typically expect to hear about how schools and students across Maine fared on standardized tests.

This year, dozens of other states have already reported their own test scores. And while families and schools in Maine are receiving their results, the state says the results won't be shared with the public at large.

For more on the issue, All Things Considered host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Maine Public reporter Robbie Feinberg.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mitchell: To start, can you take us through the latest on what's been happening with these tests?

Feinberg: So, just as a quick refresher, we're talking about the annual standardized tests that public school students in certain grades are required to take each spring. And, like so many other parts of education, the administration of these tests was changed pretty dramatically because of the pandemic. Back when school buildings closed during the spring of 2020, the federal government granted states a waiver and said they didn't have to administer these tests at all.

Things changed again during the last school year. Students were required to take standardized tests in the spring of 2021. But there were two big changes to the assessments. The first is that Maine changed its statewide standardized test for math and reading.

It moved to a new test, the NWEA. And the state received a federal waiver exempting it from certain accountability and reporting requirements.

According to an email from a DOE spokesperson, the agency said, "will not be publicly reporting all data from spring 2021 testing." The department says the assessment results are still being used by schools and teachers, and individual families are receiving the assessment data from their schools. But that information isn't being shared with the public.

Did the state offer any reasoning behind the decision?

Yes, a spokesperson for the DOE says one reason the agency applied for that federal waiver exempting it from these requirements is that because of the state's move to that new standardized test last spring, there's no data from past years to compare the new test results to, and the state says there are "implementation impacts" that occur when moving to a new test. The state also says that publicly reporting this data, and identifying schools, may be "problematic" because the pandemic has impacted the ability of schools to assess students.

"We have every confidence in our schools’ ongoing use of data, including observation and classroom assessments conducted by the highly trained professionals who are teaching students, and their use of the data that are provided directly to schools and students with the Maine Education Assessment’s science assessment and the NWEA," DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said in an email. "Schools always have and will continue to have the tools by which they are able to provide families with accurate snapshots of their students’ learning and areas for growth."

So how are schools and other groups feeling about how these test scores are being used?

On the school side, the reaction is generally positive. Jay Charette, the superintendent of RSU 38 in Readfield, says his district has been using the new NWEA standardized test for years. And he says the tests provide quicker results, which help to identify what specific areas and subjects they need to focus on with students. And Charette says that public reporting of these state test scores often isn't all that useful, because he says the results often simply reflect the socioeconomic status of a certain community, and don't really show how much students are learning and growing each year.

"You want to make sure, every year, your students are improving. And I think those test scores, publishing them, and saying, 'Well, this is better or that's better,' it skews things a little bit," Charette said.

But some groups do have concerns about the lack of public data. The new test is the fourth standardized test used in Maine in about a decade. And Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, said it comes amid a huge educational disruption.

"I'm not a huge fan of assessments in assessing our kids all the time. But I do believe that, we do need to have an understanding as to how the pandemic impacted all of our children," Woodcock said. "And I don't think that we do have a good understanding of, academically, how it has done that. And this is going to make it increasingly difficult, because there's no baseline to compare it to."

Some school officials point out that there are other standardized tests, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests students regularly and tracks academic results over a long period of time.

Is the approach that Maine is taking that different from what we're seeing in other states?

I posed that question to Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the CEO of the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign. She said about 35 states so far have released results of their state assessments publicly. So that does appear to put Maine in the minority in its approach for releasing assessment data. Bell-Ellwanger said that even with many challenges during the last school year, states should share assessment data in order to promote transparency.

"Leaders must be transparent about what they do know, and what they don't know. And that is the only way that they can begin to guide recovery efforts," Bell-Ellwanger said. "And through that, what leaders can do is to provide as much context as possible about the data that they have, how it was collected, and what it means. And that providing that context is one way to ensure that the data is used as intended and appropriately. And is not used to draw incorrect conclusions, mislead, or penalize schools."

The state will still be releasing some measures of student data from the past year. The federal government is requiring that states report chronic absenteeism — that's the percentage of students who were absent for at least 10% of the school year. Those measures should give us some idea of students' attendance records over the past year and their connection and engagement with school.