Monday, June 8, 2015

Public Input Comment for School Committee June 8

On May 20th, Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin stated the following in a Priority Notice:

"Local school districts in Maine have the authority under state law to place requirements on students and not award a diploma if the student does not meet these requirements. This could include things such as community service, a senior year graduation exam, or participation in statewide or local assessments.

While parents and students have the right to refuse to fulfill these requirements, they do not have the right, for example, to force the district to award a diploma after they refuse."

I agree with Mr Desjardin that actions have consequences, and I agree families cannot expect districts to haphazardly overturn policy.  So, I am preemptively asking for you to not change Lewiston's graduation requirements.  If anyone suggests Lewiston require students sit the state exam in order to earn a diaploma in the name of protecting funding, I beg you to stop the motion in its tracks.  I have three reasons why.

First, Acting Commissioner Desjardin causually mentioned that it is within local control for districts to require participation in the state exam.  Participation, not passing.  (I have issue with a diploma contingent on passing the exam, too, but let's put that aside for now).  All sitting the exam demonstrates is compliance and seat time, which are directly in opposition to the current direction for the state and district.  We cannot work towards proficiency based diplomas and then tack on a graduation requirement unrelated to mastery of content. 

Second, consequences need to fit the crime, so to speak.  We are not talking about a student being barred from an ice cream social or other such reward.  This is the culmination of over a decade of work for student, family, and community and the key to unlocking high paying jobs and continuing education.  The consequence of no diploma because how a students spends several hours out of a decade is absurd. 

Third, almost all high school students slated to take state exam are minors.  Ultimately, the parent gives permission for a student to refuse the exam.  Students should not be punished for their parents' choices.  Neither should teachers, schools, or districts be punished for parents choices.  It is not the job of the state or the district to convince parents out of their convictions. Parents exercising their right to opt out should rather be clear signal to that district and state to listen, discuss, debate, and make change. 

Recently, my husband and I were talking about our future.  I plan to return to teaching and we plan to move to a larger home using my pay towards the mortgage.  These last five years I've been able to speak my mind about education without concern for losing income my family needs.  But after we move, if I lose my job for sharing my professional opinions publicly, it directly affects my family and my future.  As an adult, thinking about the conflict of doing what I know is ethically right and doing what I must to for practical reasons was induced a suffocating, anxious, helpless feeling.  I'm an adult who has chosen this profession.  Its a somewhat fitting cause and effect.  But, how could we ask our high school students to engage in that debate? Or our parents?  We shouldn't.  Loss of diploma is not a fitting consequence; its a threat designed to strikes fear right through the heart of parents and students and give them little choice but to change districts or comply. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

School Committee Comment April 13th: MEA and Opting Out in Lewiston

Super small font is for large chunks I chose to edit out for time constraints.  I am emailing the full piece to the school committee.  

In August, I spoke to this committee about Lewiston Public Schools' lack of communication and transparency, and tonight I speak about those concerns regarding testing. 

While I don't personally value standardized tests, I was skeptical these exams harmed children, especially in Lewiston.  That changed a year ago when I asked McMahon a ridiculous question: Do you use standardized tests in Kindergarten?  Learning the district expected my four year old to complete the NWEA three weeks into Kindergarten -- that was the moment I knew Lewiston didn't put students first, didn't put educational research first, didn't put educators' professional opinions first.  As a teacher, I knew to ask, but, if I hadn't, my child would have taken two exams without my notification.  How can parents make judgements or choices if they aren't informed?  They can't. 

More than once, district employees (but never my daughter's teacher) encouraged her taking NWEA to prove she'd do just fine.  She would be just fine as she's had access to computers and a wide variety of other educational advantages.  That doesn't change that a computerized test for four and five year olds is developmentally inappropriate and unreliable, nor does it change that my daughter's teacher can determine strengths and weakness without a standardized exam.  And it certainly doesn't change that some Kindergarteners don't do just fine. 

The community expects education leaders to inform them.  As a teacher, I'm an exception to the norm.  My husband, however, is not.  On multiple occasions I've asked, "Hun, if I didn't tell you this, would you ever know?"  He always replies, "No, I assume the schools tells me anything important.  Isn't that their job?"  Most Americans, like my husband, highly regard their local schools and trust their relationships with staff.

We expect our children's teachers to object when the district or DOE requests practices wrong for students.  Teachers should object because their obligation to students proceeds politics.  They should object out of respect to their professional education, training, and experience.  Administrators should ask teachers to critically examine reforms and mandates.  Instead, Lewiston expects silent compliance.  Some teachers were stopped from informing parents, while others fear speaking based on the district climate.  The state doesn't employee teachers; Lewiston does.  And thus, this is a Lewiston problem.

LPS chose the direction for the district conversation on testing and opting out.  As my experience with the Kindergarten testing exemplifies, the go-to strategy is silence.  The district didn't lead balanced public dialog, and thus insinuated parents cannot handle a full discussion and dismissed their criticism.  The district didn't informed parents how to channel their concerns into the federal re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or Maine bill LD695.  When pressed, the district cowered behind a federal threat, while also blindly promoting the exam's benefits and guilting families for putting their children's needs first. 

The district should informed parents of their legal right to opt out, and also of the related law regrading 95% participation rates and Gov LePage's report card grading system.  Both were used as scare tactics, yet either resulting in consequences for Lewiston this year is highly unlikely.  Parents want information to make the best choices, but the district withheld information to prevent parents making decisions one group found unfavorable. Information such as: families can opt out; no NCLB waiver state nationally has lost flexibility in a percentage of Title I funds due to participation; and the Govenor's suspended A-F system is seriously flawed.  A parent shouldn't have to fight to get this information.  My husband would say demanding and distributing this information is what Lewiston taxpayers pay their hired and elected education leaders to do. 

Because parents feel they aren't heard, they are left with few options.  First, they can opt out, which both removes their children from the issues of the exam and makes a political statement.  And, parents can inform others -- from the parents they interact with daily, to readers of the Sun Journal, to their local, state, and national elected officials.  Inaction is not an option because it results in no change.  While Mr Handy and Mr Webster expressed concerns with testing, they didn't acted.  On February 23rd, I was excited the school committee decided to inform parents of the right to opt out because it was action.  A fellow activist referred Abigial Curtis of the BDN to me on Feb 24th, and I referred her to Mr Handy to confirm what I heard at the meeting.  The Washington Post then picked up the information from the BND that LPS was informing parents they can opt out.  However, LPS received national recognition for respecting their parents, when ultimately parents were left uninformed of their right or the debate around the exam.

This year, I heard Lewiston referred to as a leader in Maine.  We missed that opportunity here despite our receiving the credit.  One line in a letter stating, "You have the right to opt out of the exam," would accomplish so much.  Parents won't accept the manipulation of their children as the district has done.  Parents are acting through refusal.  They say, No, the test is developmentally inappropriate, rushed, and erroneous.  No, my child's teacher can provide this data.  No, my child is not a cog in a political or corporate scheme.  It disgusts me that the educational leadership in Lewiston cannot muster the courage to speak for students as parents have.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

School Committee Public Comment March 9th

Before I begin, I want to quickly mention that parents have not forgotten the last school committee meeting's discussion on opt out rights and the confusion over the information actually sent home.  We sincerely hope that this will be addressed tonight.  

Thursday night, I read all the social media comments regarding the press conference for the opt out bill purposed by Sarah Gideon and Nathan Libby.  One sentiment from the comments repeated: How will we know how students are doing if they don't participate in the MEA?

I went to sleep thinking:  How does our community not know students are assessed daily?

Report cards, progress reports, numerical scores on assignments, and the narrative comments that accompany all those share data on student progress that teachers collect through assessment.  Teachers also conference with parents to share data.  Many teachers conference outside the mandated annual times, or if they don't meet face-to-face, they give the same information via phone or email. 

How do teachers generate data to report?  They do give standardized assessments. But, the bulk of teachers' data is not from these assessments. In fact, many teachers don't value this data at all. 

Teachers can't wait until the administration of a standardized assessment.  They know that student data should drive instruction in order to meet individual needs.  Teachers must frequently adjust lessons based on the needs reflected in the data.  Sometimes, that adjustment is weekly, and sometimes, it happens half way through a lesson.  Teachers need data daily, even hourly.  Cumbersome standardized assessments do not provide that. 

Every time a teacher observes a student, talks with a student, or reads a student's work, that teacher is assessing and gathering data on curriculum and habits of work.  At any moment in the classroom, a teacher's mind is a running record of data for each student in the room.  And at any moment of the day, a teacher can open a mental file of data on each of her students. This information is what a teacher uses to plan -- memories of students struggles and successes, not complex, detached score reports. 

So, how do we know if a student is progressing if he doesn't take the exam?  Simple: Ask his teacher.  Despite Mr Webster's assertion to the contrary on the news and in the Sun Journal, teachers are our best tool for measuring student progress. 

Recently, both national and local media has villianizes teachers.  Are there bad teachers?  Of course!  But there are also bad plumbers and doctors and chefs.  Negative press and privatization contribute to Americans not viewing teachers as professionals and subsequently dismissing their opinions.  Yet, teachers have degrees in education, some multiple advanced degrees.  Teachers are constantly learning through professional development and course work. So, why do people trust a test written by a distant corporation for profit and scored by non-professionals rather than the trained locals with whom their children spend half of their awake hours?

This committee can change the conversation and lead the community in respecting the professional opinions of teachers.  Right now in Lewiston, teachers are afraid to speak openly.  Why would we want the most educated and experienced community members in this field to not speak?  Its backwards and ludicrous and must stop now.  Please gather input from teachers.  Provide them with a private way to give honest feedback as well as a public forum to present their professional opinions and evidence.  Please aggressively seek their opinions instead of allowing their intimidated silence.

Some online commenters believed they couldn't know their children's progress unless compared to others in their class, state, or nation.  However, education is not competitive.  Yes, it is beneficial to know strengths and weaknesses at the individual and state level to identify best practice and provide support.  But ultimately do I care how my child compares, or do I care if she meets developmental milestones and masters content?  If she works to her potential and gets her unique needs met?  (Thinking I'll leave this paragraph out because I'm not sure it really is on topic and it will cut time). 

To School Committe Regarding Hand Scoring of MEA

Dear School Committee Members,
By now, it is no surprise to you that I am writing about standardized testing.  Over the last several days, I have gained some knowledge I feel you must also know. 
This ad on Craigslist was circling on Facebook.  The employer is Measurement Inc and they are seeking scorers for open responses on standardized tests.  I even mentioned this ad causally in my public comment on Feb 23rd.

The idea that a Maine high stakes test would be scored by just anyone with any sort of four year degree willing to work for $11 an hour in Detroit is absurd to me.  But, so was a four year old taking a standardized test, and I was wrong about that. 
So, I tweeted the ad:
.@LewistonSuper @mdoeNews Is this how our MEA scorers are hired? Make info on this topic public & easily accessible.

I received this as a response the following day:
Maine DOE@mdoeNews Mar 1
@jackybboyd No. Computerized scoring for many questions and open-ended responses scored by educators. Test made by teachers, for students.

I was satisfied for the time being as I had other concerns I was attending to, but a Montello teacher, Emily Kennedy Talmage, also saw the ad.  We started discussing it.  She was particularly concerned that her students, who were working so hard to make gains in their writing this year, would not have their work scored by the most qualified scorers.  This concern for her students spurred her to do some research. 

"McGraw-Hill Education CTB, for instance, told Education Week it is relying on seven subcontractors to help with a $53.7 million Smarter Balanced contract that includes test-item development, review of items, scoring, checking alignment with standards, and project management. The subcontractors include not only individuals providing consulting, but companies and organizations such as the AIR; the Data Recognition Corp., of Maple Grove, Minn.; and Measurement Incorporated, of Durham, N.C." 

Next, Emily found the following on the Maine DOE's web site
Who is handscoring?
Individual school staff are being trained to hand-score that component of the interims. The hand-scoring for the summative is being performed by AIR’s sub-vendor, Measurement Incorporated.

Suddenly, my concerns were more than I could express in a tweet.  Even though the Maine DOE had said "no," our tests are not scored like this, that didn't seem to be the case.  I emailed both of the texts presented above to Samantha Warren.  She was out of the office, but responded the following day with this:

"Now that I am back in the office, I wanted to follow-up with you on how constructed responses to the State assessment, which was developed by teachers including dozens from Maine, are scored. As in the past, answers are scored anonymously by educated (four-year degree or higher) specially trained and monitored raters, which often include many educators (a solicitation targeting Maine teachers will go out soon I am told).

I don’t want to debate the merits of posting jobs on one site or another (I know for hiring I’ve done before, I post any place I can that may attract applicants, especially if it is free but of course only hire anyone who is qualified). I know there is no information I can provide you that will increase your confidence in this assessment, and I completely respect that and as I’ve said before, am appreciative of your engagement in improving education on behalf of your kids. All that I can do is provide you timely answers to the many questions you pose."

While Ms Warren's response was certainly respectful, it did not change the following:
  1. The initial response from the Maine DOE on twitter and this email do not match.  That calls into question for me just how valid the assertion that teachers were meaningfully involved in the writing of the exam as well as that it will be scored in Maine. 
  2. How can we let non-educators be the work force scoring these exams?  Not only does that seems disrespectful to the hard work of students, but it is also disrespectful to the hard work of teachers and the schools as they will also be judged on these scores. 
  3. Ms Warren says that this is how the exams have been scored previously.  However, I saw a Maine teacher comment online that when she scored MEA's it was a three day weekend at USM and the scorers were all teachers.  Also, the scorers were not paid, but received professional development credits.  That is quite a different picture to me. 
  4. Ms Warren did not provide any documentation showing that Maine tests are not shipped off to Detroit to be scored by the very people hired by this ad. 
  5. Craigslist is not the proper venue for posting a professional job such as this, in my opinion.  Teaching jobs in Maine aren't posted there but on Serving Schools; why would scoring be any different? 
I may sound elitist in my desire that only educators score these exams, but I remember what it was like during my student teaching and first year of teaching.  I remember what it was like to learn how to score writing samples and how long it took me to be good at it.  I have witnessed teachers not accustomed to large volumes of student writing struggle with it as I did.  That is NOT the way we want our students' tests scored.  And it is certainly NOT how we want the data generated for our teachers' evaluations and our schools rankings. 

This finding is just another reason these tests are not right for our students.  Best practices are being ignored by politicians and corporations making these decisions. 

Jacky Boyd

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The 95% Saga (Updated 3/21)

I consider myself pretty average when it comes to my ability to find information.  So, if I can't find something easily, then I figure the average person can't find it either.

Recently, I hear more and more buzz about exactly what the consequences are if a district doesn't make the expected 95% participation rate for MEA.  I'm not the only one who can't seem to find an answer.

So, I asked the place most likely to have an answer: The Maine Department of Education.  February 12th, I asked: Can you please explain for me the effect on Title I funding for the following situations: 1) A district chooses to refuse to administer the MEA exam and 2) A district fails to meet expected participation for the MEA exam.  (I asked question 1 at that time because there was a little talk of Lewiston not administering the exam if we could not get paper tests due to the technology problems, but that issue was solved and refusing the exam for the district was quickly dropped). 

February 17th, Samantha Warren wrote me back. Most of her response was about the benefits of the test data.  Then, she said the following:

"If the district chose to not participate in the state assessment (which I don’t think a district in Maine has ever done), more detrimental than potentially losing some or all of those federal funds would be the loss of the valid and reliable results that come from the assessment that allow us to hold our schools accountable and give them the information they need to improve the way they are supporting each and every student achieve their full potential." 

However, I did not find Ms Warren's response helpful.  She simply reiterated what I already knew -- that there was potential for "losing some or all of those federal funds."  That's simply not a good enough answer.

So, I wrote back saying:
"You did not answer my questions.  I understand the department's point of view and disagree. I know very few educators or parents who believe standardized assessments are a better way to collect that than teachers just doing their jobs. However, when a parent or teacher who agrees with me philosophically asks me the consequences, I want to direct them to clear factual information about the consequences so they can make the best choice for their family.  Parents can't do that without the facts.  This information should be readily available for anyone.  So again, can you please explain for me the effect on Title I funding for the following situations: 1) A district chooses to refuse to administer the MEA exam  and 2) A district fails to meet expected participation for the MEA exam."

To this, Ms Warren replied:
"I do believe I answered your questions. You asked about the consequences of opting out, and I explained them. In terms of specific financial consequences, that’s not a question Maine DOE can necessarily answer.

As I’ve said publicly, I don’t speak for U.S. DOE but the Maine DOE does not intend to punish schools if they don’t reach 95 percent in this inaugural year of the new assessment if it is clear that A.) it is a result of parents exercising their rights to opt their child out; B.) that efforts were made by the district to educate parents and the public about the benefits of the assessment; and C.) that all students were given the opportunity to participate."

I thanked Ms Warren because this gave a clear answer about what Mainers can expect from the Maine DOE in regards to opt outs, which Ms Warren knew was the reason I was asking about not meeting participation rates.  On March 5th, I request from Ms Warren a public source that shares this information and ask how this information was shared with superintendents.  She promptly sent this:
"Hope you are well. This is something we’ve communicated in multiple ways to schools, including in our email to them several weeks ago in which we said we would not be issuing A-F grades this year, at the annual superintendents conference back in January, etc.  Specifically, when school leaders email me about the consequences of not reaching the 95 percent requirement under state and federal law, I tell them:

As the Department has repeatedly tried to stress to the field, we understand this move to a new online assessment is a major transition for schools and families and that this year sets a benchmark from which to build from in future years. As a result, we are not issuing A-F grades in 2015 and have been clear we do not intend for any State-initiated penalties for schools that don’t reach 95 percent this year if it is clear that A.) it is a result of parents exercising their rights to opt their child out; B.) that efforts were made by the school/district to educate parents and the public about the benefits of the assessment; and C.) that all students were given the opportunity to participate. We have been in touch with U.S. DOE which has historically held strong to the 95 percent expectation to see what consequences they may impose on Maine and its schools but have not gotten a response. However, we will do everything in our power to advocate that Maine schools not be penalized in this first year of testing because parents did what they are legally allowed to do.

Hope that gives you what you need. You can reference me as the spokesperson for the agency."While this email doesn't give a public source for the 95% information, it did explain how districts were informed.  I believe that this priority notice may be the email she was referring to, and it is one place where the A-F report card grades are explained.  This Portland Press Herald article ran the same day, and it contains this near the end: Although officials acknowledge that parents already have the right to opt out, the No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students each year, so if too many opt out, the school could be considered a failing school even if test scores are high.

With my answer from the Maine DOE, I now need to ask the US DOE about their consequences.

On February, 19th I email Susan Wilhem of the US DOE with my request for information.  I ask specifically:
"Recently, I contacted my state DOE inquiring about specific consequences for test participation.  I was assured that other than the loss of useful data, there were no consequences at the state level. 
I am now asking at the federal level what the consequences would be for Maine.  Can you please explain explicitly the effect on Title I funding for the following situations:
1) A district chooses to refuse to administer the MEA (Smarter Balanced) exam,
2) A district fails to meet expected participation for the MEA exam, and
3) Maine as a whole fails to meet participation expectations.
I am unsure if you are the proper recipient for this inquiry.  If not, please help direct me to the correct person(s).  I know this information exists and believe the difficulty at locating it hinders parents' ability to best serve their children." 

Ultimately, Emily Bank is charged with responding to my email.  On February 20th, Ms Bank writes me.  Her two paragraph reply is dense with legalese and does not actually answer my question.  Here is what she said:
Thank you for your email regarding consequences for test participation.  Susan Wilhelm referred the question to me, and I am happy to respond. 

Section 1111(b)(3)(A) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires each SEA to have a set of high-quality, yearly student academic assessments for reading/language arts and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school and for science once each in grades 3-5, 6-8, and 10-12.  State educational agencies (SEAs) and Local educational agencies (LEAs) must provide for the participation of all students on the assessments (ESEA Section 1111(b)(3)(C)(ix)(I)) so that they can identify the learning progress of all students against the same high expectations, regardless of a student’s race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or neighborhood.  This requirement does not permit certain students or a specific percentage of students to be excluded from assessments.  Rather, it sets out the rule that all students in the tested grades must be assessed, although ESEA Section 1111(b)(2)(I)(i) permits an LEA or school to make Adequate Yearly Progress as long as it assesses at least 95% of its students.

In applying for funds under Title I, Part A of the ESEA, the SEA assured that it would administer the Title I, Part A program in accordance with all applicable statutes and regulations (ESEA Section 9304(a)(1)).  Similarly, each LEA that receives Title I, Part A funds assured that it would administer its Title I, Part A program in accordance with all applicable statutes and regulations (ESEA Section 9306(a)(1)).  If an SEA does not ensure that all students are assessed, the U.S. Department of Education has a range of enforcement actions it can take.  The SEA has similar enforcement actions with respect to an LEA that does not ensure that all students participate in the state assessments, including withholding the LEA’s Title I, Part A funds.  Also, SEAs with approved ESEA flexibility plans, like the Maine Department of Education, have included specific consequences in their accountability systems for any school that misses participation rate and must implement this component of their accountability systems with fidelity.    

I hope this response is helpful to you, please let me know if you have further questions.
Ms Bank either BCC's or forwards the message to someone at the Maine DOE.

I'm frustrated by this response.  It is intimidating for the average person, and after I've read it through a few times, I still feel I don't have an answer.  So, February 21st, I reply to Ms Bank asking for more information.  Today is March 5th, and I have not received a reply from Ms Bank despite her comment to let her know if I have further questions. 

Ms Bank's reply does lead me to ask Ms Warren the following on February 21st:
"I have had brief correspondence with the US DOE.  This has lead me to discover the information I seek is the consequences included in Maine's accountability system for schools that miss participation rates.  The US DOE said that Maine has an approved ESEA flexibility plan and that this information would have been in that plan.  Are you able to provide this information?  If not, who should I contact?  While a link will suffice, a summary of that information not in legalese would be extremely helpful for me to share the information accurately with members of my community."

She responds back with this email:
"Yes, I saw the letter US DOE shared with you. The waiver language and the accountability system it outlines is (in my opinion) not written in plain language as the audience is US DOE. That’s in fact why we developed our own accountability system, via A-F grades. You can read the waiver application here:

One thing to note is that our current waiver expires this summer, and we are currently applying for the next one and seeking feedback, which you may want to share: Additionally, the ESEA reauthorization is currently being debated in Congress, so the new iteration may look very different, which is why I suggested to you US DOE needed to explain the federal consequences."
I look at the materials available under her first link. This link in particular gives a little bit of information about how schools are categorized and what happens at each category.  I do learn about interventions and consequences for Title I funding for Priority and Focus schools from the notes at the bottom of this chart, but no specifics are given about how participation rates relate to the determination of these labels even though participation is mentioned.  I have seen discussion of lower than 95% participation resulting in a lowering of one letter grade and below 90% participation resulting in an automatic F, but I do not have sources for that information at present. 

Sunday, February 22nd, I wake to find I've been CC'ed on an email from Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin to Ms Bank.  Here is that email:
"Recently a constituent of ours here in Maine raised very specific and serious questions that are the topic of concern across the U.S. due to the widespread shift to new forms of assessment and the natural confusion and fear of the unknown that accompanies such change.

Buried in your response to her is the statement that “the U.S. Department of Education has a range of enforcement actions it can take.” This is the closest you came to answering her questions and I think we can all agree, it is not an answer at all.

I am sure that if you had made this request and were the recipient of such a response, you would have naturally asked yourself, “such as?” and perhaps added a few mental notes about the poor manner in which your government’s public servants replied to your genuine questions.

If a member of our staff here in Maine had given such a non-answer to legitimate questions, stemming from a real concern raised by a citizen that we serve, I would soon after have a very substantive conversation with them about their job performance.

On behalf of Ms. Boyd, I would like to ask that you consider providing her, and the DOE staff here in Maine, a more complete answer so that we may clearly understand the position of our Department of Education."

Between February 26th and March 3rd, I write Ms Bank twice reminding her of my request, and Mr Desjardin's.  I explain to her that the information I am requesting is time sensitive, that parents deserve transparency to make the best choices, and that its unprofessional to ignore me.   On March 1st, Mr Desjardin asks me if I have heard from Ms Bank.  When I reply I have not, I later in the day get CCed when  Mr Desjardin writes to Deborah Delisle of the US DOE regarding the matter.  March 4th, I compose this letter published on this blog and I email and tweet it to Angus King, Susan Collins, Bruce Poliquin, and Chellie Pingree.  As of now, evening of March 5th, I have had no reply from any of them.

However, first thing this morning (March 5th), Mr Desjardin forwarded the following to me:
"Thank you for your message and for taking the time to outline your concerns. My name is Dr. Carol O’Donnell, and I am the group leader for Maine. I am responding to previous communications that you have sent to my staff member, Ms. Emily Bank.

As indicated below, a response was provided to Ms. Boyd on February 20, 2015. Many of the initial and follow-up questions and their related consequences are specific policies and actions that the Maine Department of Education would take, and therefore are probably best suited for your team to answer and address. In support of helping to further clarify this matter, you may find of value the information contained in this letter, posted to our website, which addresses similar issues:

Please let me know if there is additional information we can provide to you."

When I see this, I'm still rushing around getting my daughter ready for the bus, so I quickly shoot an email back saying that the letter is for Alaska and that Dr O'Donnell's comment that the control lies with the state leads me to think that we have no consequences because the state has said there will be none for low participation rates due to opt outs.  However, once I get a chance to sit and read the Alaska letter in the link, I send the following response back to Mr Desjardin:
"Now that I am more awake and less distracted by my children, I have reviewed the Alaska letter and see the list of actions under question 3.  However, the email from Ms Bank is verbatim the answer to question 4 regarding opting out.  Thus, the question if opt outs are considered in the participation rate by the federal government remains unanswered.  The material makes it clear the that state or district must offer the test to all students, but makes no statements about the student's refusal to take the exam, which, frankly, how could a school be held accountable for actions outside their control?  So, I now have a list of punishments for breaking the rules, so to speak, but still am unclear if the action I asked about will be considered breaking the rule or which punishment would be applied.  I wouldn't deny my children or students the clear answer to such a question, and don't like being treated that way as an adult."

Just now, March 5th night, a friend sent me this blog post.  If you skip ahead, you will see four reasons we should not be concerned about consequences for participation rates below 95%.  (I have the idea to look at previous Maine participation rates soon.  I believe I saw this info in one of the links from Ms Warren).  This information matches that presented by FairTest

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the whole saga thus far of me trying to find out what the consequences are for districts and Maine if MEA participation rates are below 95% due to parents exercising their right to opt out. 

I'd like to add quickly that the bill LD695 An Act to Empower Parents in the Education of their Children by Allowing an Opt-out from Standardized Assessments was released today.  If this bill passes. there can legally be no consequences for opt outs' effect on participation from the state.

Update March 6th:
A friend sent me this which I turned into a Google Doc for sharing. To my best knowledge, it was prepared by a MEA (union) representative in preparation for the LD695 press event.  This document list several Maine school that did not reach their participation rates including one school that lost a letter grade; however, it states none of these schools had consequences from the state or federal governments. 

I use this chart on the Maine DOE Accountability page sent to me by Ms Warren to find schools listed as not meeting their participation targets.  There are many schools listed as N/A, but only six listed as No.  Three of these are not Title I schools (Old Orchard Beach High School, Greenville Consolidated School, and Belfast Area High School), which leaves the following with their ESEA classifications: Mt Desert Island HS and Crescent Park School as focus schools and Mt Vernon Elementary as a monitoring school.

I also read the definitions in the glossary also on the Maine DOE Accountability page sent to me by Ms Warren  and did not see any mention of participation rates in the definitions of the categories.  They only mention Annual Measurable Objective progress and School Accountability Index, which also makes no mention of participation rates in its definition. 

Update March 21:
On Friday March 13th, I heard from Angus King's office.  The staff member I spoke with shared similar information to what I had heard.  He has a longer list of actions the federal government can take for noncompliance, but he also used the letter from Alaska as a source.  The new piece of information he has was this: The federal government has never withheld Title I funding before because they have never had a state or district not try to bring the people back into compliance. 

On Monday March 16th, I heard from Bruce Poliquin's office.  The staff member said she had only just received the email because of the round about system of delivery, but she had called right away because of the dates.  Ultimately, I decided that the US DOE was not going to give a clearer answer or be moved to make the information public by having Rep Poliquin's office inquire about the same topic.  So, I decided I would write a new request for their office asking them to investigate the transparency and difficulty of a citizen getting the necessary information.  A citizen should not have to get a state senator or representative or education commissioner to do this work for him or her.  As of today, I have not yet drafted that request. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Plea to US Senators and Representatives for Aid in Response from US DOE

Dear Maine Senators and Representatives,

I am writing to request your aid in my dealings with the US DOE.  As I will explain in detail below, I have been trying for weeks to get clear answers to what I thought were cut and dry questions. 

My requests to the US DOE was for clear, detailed information about district and Maine's consequences to Title I funding if state standardized test participation rates are below 95%.  After an initial swift, but unsatisfactory, response, I have been ignored by the US DOE. 

I am against high stakes standardized testing, but my complaint with the US DOE is not in regards to the tests, but rather the US DOE's seeming refusal to provide this information.  I work to inform members of my community about test refusal, and people repetitively ask for the federal consequences if opt outs lower participation rates.  It is a valid and responsible question, to which I can find no answer.  Parents can not make an informed choice without this information. 

I am a co-administrator of an opt out group on Facebook.  We have 200 members including: school committee members, families from all Lewiston schools, connections with all PTOs, and many teachers, and thus sharing this information has the potential to reach all Lewiston Public Schools families.  Furthermore, through our members' personal connections and social networking through the MEA and the Maine chapter of the Badass Teacher's Association, our information can reach teachers and families across the state.  In other words, this information has the potential for a very wide audience, if only the US DOE would respond. 

Here is the time line thus far:
Feb 12th - I email the Maine DOE on this matter regarding state consequences. 
Feb 17th - Samantha Warren of the Maine DOE and I send a series of emails where she answers my questions. 
Feb 19th - I email Susan Wilhem of the US DOE with my request for information.  Ultimately, Emily Bank is charged with responding.
Feb 20th - Emily Bank writes me.  Her two paragraph reply is dense with legalese and does not actually answer my question.  She BCC's or forwards the message to someone at the Maine DOE. 
Feb 21st - I reply to Ms Bank asking for more information. 
Feb 22nd - I am CC'ed on an email from Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin to Ms Bank.  He explains that he did not see her response as a real answer to my questions, notes that he would not allow his staff to interact with constituents in such a manner, and asks that she write him back with the requested information.  
Feb 26th - I write Ms Bank again reminding her of my request, and Mr Desjardin's.  I explain to her that the information I am requesting is time sensitive. 
March 1st - Mr Desjardin asks me if I have heard from Ms Bank.  I have not.
March 1st - Mr Desjardin writes to Deborah Delisle of the US DOE regarding the matter.
March 1st - I share my frustration with some other educators.  A few of them email Ms Bank with the same request for information.  
March 3rd - I write Ms Bank again briefly restating my request and stating her lack of response is unprofessional.  

I have spent a lot of time wondering why Ms Bank is mute.  If she were out of the office, she should have an auto reply.  If she is working on finding me an answer or forwarding my request on, why not a brief note saying so?  I am left with only three conclusions, none of them uplifting.  She must find the communication unimportant, or she can not find the requested information, or she is actively keeping the information from citizens.  I have no wish to attack Ms Bank personally, but sadly, I have no other contact at the US DOE on this matter.  Her failure to respond to me, other educators, or Mr Desjardin has led me to ask you for help. 

The Maine Educational Assessment (also known as Smarter Balanced) begins in Lewiston on March 17th.  To be fair to parents, they would need this information by Friday, March 13th to process it, make a decision, and then contact their school if they ultimately decide to opt out.  Time is running out on this matter. 

I am sorry to be so long winded, but I wanted to give you a thorough description of the situation.

Thank you for your time, and I hope you can help this information reach Mainers. 

Jaclyn Boyd

Monday, February 23, 2015

School Committee Public Comment Feb 23 Unabridged

In the name of time and coherence, I am planning on cutting the last two paragraphs when I address the school committee.  

My freshmen year in high school, two men, Mr William Carroll and Mr Ronald Howland, co-taught my Humanities course.  They, among others, shaped my teaching, and I think of them often.  Tonight, I am picturing two hand made posters that hung in Mr Carroll's room.  They simply read, "Says who?" and "How do you know?"  These two phrases have stayed with me for twenty years.  When I was teaching, I tried to share their sentiment with my students, and now, I reflect on them in the face of education reform. 

I do not accept information thrust at me without knowing "says who?"  And I do not accept change without asking "how do you know" that it is a step in the right direction for students, teachers, and schools. 

Last school committee meeting, a teacher raised several technology related concerns with the MEA.  Since then, the district applied for paper tests for students using iPads, if the problems are not resolved.  I hear Mr Carroll saying, "Who will say the glitches are fixed?  How will you know the problems are fixed?"  And I answer, "Well, the people who said there were no problems in the first place will tell us they are fixed.  And, I have no idea if anyone in the district will be given proof that those problems are fixed and that no additional ones will arise."

But Mr Carroll's words echo from the past on more than just the technology issues associated with the test. 

How do I know the test content contains no mistakes?  I don't know.  But Sarah Blaine's piece entitled "Pearson's Wong Answer" raises serious concerns about small inaccuracies in tests, especially when dealing with non-released test items devoid of accountability for the test writers. 

How do I know the open answer portions of the test will be scored appropriately?  I don't know how they are scored beyond the packet on SB's website.  Who is doing this work?  People hired off of Craigslist with no education background or interviews?  Ludicrous, I know, but its happened before. 

How do I know the test content is appropriately rigorous?  My personal experiences with the practice tests tell me it is not.  The 11th grade exam is "hard," but not for the right reason.  The questions require the student to guess what the question writer wants, which is a practice about which standards and assessment expert Rick Wormeli would have much to say.  (And blogger Peter Green already did address in his piece "Sampling the PARCC").  And, as I shared with the school committee in an unanimously unanswered email, directions and interface for the 3rd grade exam are overwhelming and developmentally questionable.  So, who says the test is rigorous?  Smarter Balanced thinks its the wave of the future.  The DOE seems pretty pleased, too.  But, I have not heard a single parent or teacher say, "I think this is spot on, and it is what I want for my kids."

I am also a citizen and a tax payer and as such my questions are not frivolous.  They are not breed out of fear or misunderstanding.  They are the types of questions Mr Carroll taught me to ask, first as a student, and then as a teacher.   These are college and career ready, 21st century thinking skills we should be teaching our students.  They are the types of questions we should be purposefully and actively asking all of our teachers to raise.   We should not accept what we are told without evaluating who is pushing it and if it is valid.  Doing so devalues our professionals and set a poor example for our students.  Mr Carroll would not be proud.

So, I ask them.  But, I have an awfully hard time finding the answers.  The information is simply not out there about Smarter Balanced the way it is about PARCC.  In fact, I read an excellent series of blog posts by Russell Walsh about the readability of the PARCC exam.  I tweeted him, and he posted corresponding information about the Smarter Balanced exam.  And guess what?  It was all good news.  But, previous to that, I saw a respected professional question the PARCC test, but when I wanted to know the same information for our test, I couldn't find it. 

Last week, I wrote to the US DOE asking for specific detailed information about consequences for Maine if testing participation rates were not met.  I received a brief reply, written in legalese, that did not actually answer my questions at all.  Lucky for me, acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin was CCed on the email.  Sunday morning, I awake to a copy of the message he sent to the US DOE.  He called the US DOE out on their non-answer.  It was the only time in my memory, that I can recall a person in a position of power advocating for me.  Someone who said, this is unacceptable and you deserve a real answer. That one email sent me from banging my head against the wall in frustration to a renewed energy to persist that these questions should be heard and answered.