Maine Moves to Scrap State Student Competency Tests

Published November 1, 2005

Maine’s public education establishment was shocked in early October to learn state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron planned to use the national Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Preliminary SAT (PSAT) to measure high school juniors’ academic performance, instead of the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA). On October 7, state Senate Majority Leader Michael Brennan (D-Cumberland County)–who has sponsored much of the legislation regarding the MEA–announced plans to introduce a bill blocking the switch.

For the past decade, the state education department has promoted the MEA as an authentic measure of how well students have attained state learning standards, spending tens of millions of dollars along the way to modify it.

The law creating the MEA included a provision, set to be implemented in 2011, requiring high school seniors to achieve various core competencies, which the test measures, before receiving diplomas. Brennan did not respond to interview requests.

‘A Valid Replacement’

According to a September 27 article in the Portland Press Herald, on September 20 Gendron sent letters alerting school districts to the change, which will take effect in the spring. The PSAT, which has always been optional for high school sophomores, will become mandatory effective October 2006. The tests will be paid for by the Maine Department of Education (MDOE).

Gendron decided to make the change after an independent researcher and the College Board–the SAT provider–determined it is “a valid replacement” for the MEA, according to the article.

Though Gendron was unavailable for comment, she said in her letter to the districts that she hoped switching from the MEA to the SAT would encourage more Maine students to apply for college. Though the state has an above-average high school graduation rate compared with the rest of New England, it trails in college graduation rates. Other educators, including South Portland High School Principal Jeanne Crocker, told the Press Herald it was a good idea because students tend to take the SAT more seriously than the MEA.

But others disagreed. The college admissions community began responding September 21, when Joyce E. Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), sent Gendron a letter of protest.

Angered by Change

“Our most prominent concern regarding the use of the SAT as an assessment of student achievement in high school is that the SAT is not validated for this purpose,” Smith wrote. “The SAT was originally designed as a test of aptitude. Though it has changed since its origin, it is not now, nor has it ever been, intended to measure performance in [a] high school curriculum. As administrator of the test, the College Board has repeatedly indicated that its use has only been validated as an admission entrance exam.”

Thomas K. Edwards, principal of Freeport High School in Freeport, seconded that sentiment in a letter published by the Press Herald on October 2.

“Maine’s high schools have spent three years of scarce staff development time to prepare students to ‘meet’ Maine Learning Results standards,” he wrote. “The Commissioner told us this was essential work. … The SATs, designed to ‘rank’ students, will not measure Maine’s students’ preparedness to graduate in English, math, social studies, science, health, art, foreign language and technology. If seniors do not meet the Maine Learning Results standard, they are not to graduate! Where are we headed?”

Dismayed by MEA

When the 2005 MEA results were released in mid-September, they revealed more than 50 percent of the high school juniors taking the test did not meet overall grade-level standards; only 39 percent met or exceeded math standards; and only 4 percent met or exceeded standards in science and technology.

The test also revealed 69 percent of the 706 public schools that were tested did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals as outlined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to a September 22 MDOE news release.

Frank J. Heller ([email protected]) is an educational public policy analyst and consultant in Brunswick, Maine.

For more information …

As Frank Heller reported in the July issue of School Reform News, Maine is suing the federal government over the cost of implementing the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing requirements. See “Maine Prepares NCLB Lawsuit,”