Thursday, February 20, 2003

Student assessment rules a maze

Published in the Current

Despite district concerns that as many as 20 current eighth-graders may not satisfy state requirements for high school graduation, Cape Elizabeth teachers are not getting the help they need from the state.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions and missing pieces,” said Sarah Simmonds, the district’s facilitator of curriculum, assessment and professional development.

In the meantime, teachers are continuing their work creating a local assessment and tracking system, and figuring out how to identify and support students who are struggling to meet educational standards.

It’s something the schools have been working on for a while, Simmonds said. The effort began a few years ago when Superintendent Tom Forcella started to develop a district-wide Future Direction Plan, Simmonds said.

Since then, state and federal requirements and guidelines have entered the picture, with the Maine Learning Results and the No Child Left Behind Act. All of these leave districts and teachers in a bind. They know they need to move toward the goals of the laws, but need government guidance about what exactly will satisfy the requirements.

There are two big questions. First, will students be permitted to receive high school diplomas if they do not meet the Maine Learning Results standards in all eight content areas?

Second, what impact will those standards have on special education students?

The state has not yet made clear to schools what will be required for issuing a diploma. If diplomas are available only to students who meet all content standards, other students, entitled only to a certificate of attendance, may suffer in the job market, Simmonds said.

But schools also want to acknowledge the achievements of students who have met the standards. “We have to understand the consequences,” Simmonds said.

Special education could be another variable. Individual education plans, developed for all students in special education, lay out goals for students to work toward. When adapted to take into account students’ special needs, those plans, called IEPs, can differ from curricular goals for non-special-education students.

If students who meet the goals of the IEPs are given diplomas, regardless of whether they meet the Learning Results standards, more parents will be asking for their kids to get special education services, Simmonds said.

“Learning Results is about high standards for all kids,” Simmonds said. That much is clear, but “the devil is in the details,” she said.

Students who need support should get it, Simmonds said. Teachers are working on how to identify them systematically, as well as how to meet their needs once students at risk of not graduating are identified.

A support structure is likely to include help during the academic year, possibly from teachers or other school staff, who are available during students’ free periods or before or after school.

It may also include what Simmonds called “a standards-based summer school,” which would be different from the stereotypical summer school, because students would be given assistance with the specific areas in which they need help. A student with fairly few needs could spend as little as a couple of days in summer school if things went well, Simmonds said, while a student who needed help in several areas or had significant difficulties with a set of topics could spend a few weeks.

Other problems are more administrative. To respect the tradition of “local control” for school districts, the state Legislature laid out broad standards and left it to schools to determine how those standards would be met, measured and recorded.

Many teachers never learned how to do this during their training, Simmonds said. The state has made available guideline assessments and standards for teachers to use, but most teachers around the state don’t want to use the state’s suggestions, and start to make changes.

Documenting the outcomes from the assessments is also a challenge. State and federal officials are only now beginning to specify how they need to receive information from schools, and there are others who need that information, too. Parents and teachers need to know how their students are measuring up to the standards.

To further complicate matters, colleges still look for grade-point-averages, class rank and SAT scores, which will need to be on official transcripts.

In the end, the bottom line should be that if a student does not get a diploma after four years at CEHS, “it shouldn’t be a surprise,” Simmonds said.