Maine Educators Look Beyond Testing to Measure Student Success

Feb 10, 2017

While school funding is at the center of public debate right now, educators are wrestling with another problem, too: how to measure student success.

For much of the past two decades, standardized tests have determined which students and schools are considered “successful.” But new mandates are forcing officials to look beyond test scores and diplomas.

Under the controversial former education law called No Child Left Behind, the measuring stick was the standardized test. But at Wisdom Middle/High School in in the northern Maine community of St. Agatha, students like senior Ben Michaud have become more focused on real-world career training than on test scores.

“My internship, I go to [the public works department] in Frenchville,” he says. “I was just there. We were washing the trucks, getting them ready for maintenance, all that.”

Michaud says he wants to operate heavy machinery after high school. So most school days, he’s at the department, getting experience and certification.

“They’ll show me every control in that truck,” he says. “What it does, how much fuel, how much sand it holds. Everything like that. It’s pretty cool to see. That’s what I wanna go for. So I wanna put my foot in the door.”

Senior Ciarra Thibodeau, meanwhile, is already working two jobs, plus a three-day-a-week internship and two early college courses. As she chats with a schoolmate, she says planning for her future has left little time for extracurriculars.

“I was one of the students who wasn’t joining in clubs,” Thibodeau says. “I just have, I guess, prom committee?”

“But you still work really hard,” her friend says.

“Yeah, I have two jobs outside of school,” Thibodeau says.

“So you have an excuse not to join clubs,” her friend says with a laugh.

Under federal guidelines, these out-of-school experiences aren’t heavily weighted as contributors to student success. But Fern Desjardins, the superintendent of SAD 33 in St. Agatha, says it’s wrong to ignore them.

“As much as the federal government wants us to look at the MEAs, SATs, to me, the high school transcript is the single most important indicator of their readiness for the future,” she says.

And now, schools have an opportunity to move in that direction.

Two years ago, Congress voted to replace No Child Left Behind with a new education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. The new law gives states more leeway in how they assess school performance, and it’s an subject that education officials in Maine are debating right now.

One new assessment tool on the table would measure how many students are considered “college and career ready.”

Test scores would still be important, as would graduation rates. But now, those other, out-of-school factors would matter, too.

It would work like this: Say you’re a student with a 2.0 GPA. That “C” average alone wouldn’t make you stand out in eyes of an employer or college admissions officer. But the new system would also take into account other achievements, such as community service, internships or training at a technical center.

“Those, what we call “soft skills,” are just as important as one’s intellectual ability,” says Bangor School Department Superintendent Betsy Webb. “I can’t help but think of the statement, ‘Enthusiasm on fire is better than intelligence on ice.’ You want someone who will give you all they have. Someone who might outperform someone with more natural ability.

Webb and other educators are supporting the standard for another reason, too. It may help Maine’s schools transition to the state’s new proficiency-based diploma law, which requires current eighth-graders to show proficiency in up to eight content areas in order to graduate.

Eventually, that will include subjects like Algebra II and foreign language. But that new, higher bar has some educators worried that as many as 30 percent of their students may not graduate.

“We also worry about setting a situation up where those that can’t demonstrate proficiency will be hindered by not earning a diploma,” Webb says. “There are many careers that require proficiency, but also many careers that do not.”

That, hopefully, is where the new “college and career ready” indicator fits in. While a student may not receive a diploma, some schools are creating a Certificate of Completion, designed to recognize students who may not be considered “proficient” under the law, but who still pass all their classes.

Desjardins says she hopes that with a certificate like this, or a transcript featuring a “college and career ready” certification, students could still be recognized and accepted by colleges and local businesses.

“This an alternative. Where kids can show success,” she says. “Where, I may not be proficient in the arts, but in other ways. And I am college and career ready.”

Maine’s Department of Education declined to comment on the new proposal. But according to documents from the state’s most recent meeting on the new federal law, the idea is being seriously considered as an indicator for high school students in Maine and many other states.

If approved, educators say they see the new standard as a way to help students and teachers transition into a new educational landscape.