Directors work toward unified position on tests that force technology upgradesEvaluation offers insight on what board does well, what needs work
Belfast — Directors spent a fair amount of time reaching consensus about how to present a joint statement to the Maine Department of Education expressing its collective displeasure with a new version of standardized testing that has some financial strings attached.
At its meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 25 at Belfast Area High School, directors continued discussions about the upcoming Smarter Balanced assessment testing, which Assistant Superintendent John McDonald said would be replacing the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests. The NECAP is the current method of standardized testing used in the district to assess academic progress in grades 3 - 8.
At the Feb. 11 meeting, Director Stephanie Wade took issue with the state's move toward Smarter Balanced assessments as well as its requirement that the district adhere to Common Core standards when building its curriculum. At that time, Wade said she felt the standards and that method of testing are detrimental to good teaching practices, as they take away local control over the way students are educated and how progress is assessed. Additionally, Wade noted that using that way of testing will require the district to invest significant funds in technological upgrades because students must take the tests electronically, and some of the equipment students are now using is not up to the task. This requirement comes during a particularly tough economic time for Maine schools, she said.
To that end, Wade offered to draft a letter to the Maine Department of Education on behalf of the board expressing those thoughts and calling for action to rectify those issues at the state level.
Tuesday night, Wade presented a draft of the letter to the full board for review and input. While the majority of the board agreed with Wade's position on the Smarter Balanced testing, which the DOE website stated will begin in the spring of 2015, some indicated they were not on board with criticisms regarding the Common Core standards.
"We should not be investing in initiatives that have not been proven to work," said Wade.
Director David Ferguson asked if the intent was for the entire board to sign the letter, and Wade said that was her aim when drafting the document. Board Chairman Tony Bagley said in order for the letter to be sent from the entire board, a vote to do so would have to be unanimous. Otherwise, Wade could send it to the DOE as an individual.
Wade said she would prefer to revise the letter so it would meet the needs of everyone on the board.
Bagley explained that since the board had previously passed a resolution to adopt and approve a standards-based curriculum he could not support the letter as written but that he would be on board with a letter expressing dissatisfaction with the new testing method.
Director Valerie Mank said she, too, disagreed with the Smarter Balanced testing due to the need to invest in technology in order to participate in that method of student assessment, but that she felt uncomfortable signing on to a letter criticizing the Common Core standards.
"Our teachers must go on teaching to it," she said. " ... I think it's really important that we support our staff."
"I want to unhinge us from Common Core standards," said Wade.
Mank said she was also concerned that if the board indicated it would not support the statewide move to Common Core standards, it could mean a loss of much-needed state subsidies in the future, but Wade said she did not feel the letter would result in such a loss because it is merely expressing a collective opinion.
Director Caitlin Hills agreed with Wade's assessment.
"We are letting the powers that be know that we don't support this," she said. "We're asking [State Education Commissioner Jim Rier] to take an action, we're not taking an action."
Director Alan Wood said while he agreed the letter was a step in the right direction, he did not want to make a unified statement without first seeking insight from teachers and administrators.
Swebilius said he was comfortable signing the letter as it was, concurring with Hills' comments that it is intended to prompt some action at the state level and does not carry any language indicating the district would not follow the state mandates.
Director Stephen Hopkins, like Mank, said he thought sending out a letter of this nature should be done on an individual basis.
"It sends the wrong message to teachers," he said.
Director Debora Riley said the board should consider sending a collective letter with respect to the testing because "it drains a lot of resources away from the classroom."
After some additional talks, Wade agreed to revise the letter and keep the focus on the testing. Directors rejected the motion to approve the letter as written and approved a motion to table the issue and add it to the next meeting agenda.
In other news, directors reviewed a questionnaire designed to allow each board member to assess, on a numerical scale, how well the board works together in several key areas. Bagley, reading through the completed surveys, said if one were to grade board performance, it would either be a D plus, or "partially meets," depending on what grading system was used to arrive at it.
Bagley said he found some of the scores confusing because some gave numerical grades to items directors have never done before, such as establishing board goals.
"We've never done it, it should have been all zeros," he said, noting that while the board spent about 30 minutes discussing goals at its last meeting, it never approved any.
Mank identified one common denominator in all of the surveys.
"We all think we're doing poorly," she said. "That's kind of a good thing, we finally agree on something."
Bagley asked what he could do as chairman to make the meetings run more smoothly, but all who responded to his question agreed he had served the board well.
"You, in my opinion, are doing everything the way it should be done," said Wood. " ... I think the withdrawal effort has really taken its toll on all of us."
Wood said the board has focused more on finances than education in recent years, and he wanted to see that change. Director Alexa Schweikert agreed, stating that the unfavorable economic climate has left the board "stuck in a pattern" of zeroing in on the bottom line. Schweikert suggested the board find ways to include more news on the positive things going on in the schools at every board meeting, using the recognition of winter sports teams conducted earlier in the meeting as an example.
"I want, as a board member, to hear about these good things at our meetings," she said.
Director Christopher Hyk suggested the board seek out non-voting student representatives to serve on the board, but Bagley said a previous effort by the board to accomplish that a couple of years ago did not produce any students who were willing to do the job. Hyk then proposed the board offer new directors a way of learning about past decisions the board has made and other historical information, in addition to the board training all new members receive after they are seated.
"I think that's important," said Bagley.
Bagley highlighted some things directors felt the board does well, such as maintaining freedom of access, respecting confidentiality requirements and making informed decisions. The areas that need work, he said, included engaging in more thoughtful deliberations while also making decisions without bending to emotional pressure.
"We as a board need to work on that struggle," he said.
Bagley also agreed with Wood and Schweikert regarding the need to put the focus back on students.
"We have been focused on finances for the last four years and we've lost our vision to improve the schools," he said.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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