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Conservative advocacy group report says mandates are partly to blame for Maine’s test score ranking


A conservative advocacy group is citing Maine’s falling test score ranking as evidence of failing state and federal education policies over several decades. But the state Department of Education is challenging its conclusions.

The report from the Maine Policy Institute, notes that the state’s ranking in the National Assessment of Educational Progress has fallen over nearly four decades. The group highlights factors it believes have contributed to that decline, from rising student behavioral and mental health challenges, to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which required additional assessments and school accountability.

The Maine legislature also passed a law in 2012 mandating proficiency-based diplomas in Maine schools, though the measure was repealed six years ago. David Haggan, a longtime teacher and Republican state representative from Hampden, singled out “standards-based” education reforms that he said have affected grades and due dates for assignments.

“We need to get back to the basics. We need to raise the bar, as we have done in the past. We need to get back to the academics of excellence,” Haggan said.

Report author Jonah Davids said the stream of federal and state requirements has overwhelmed teachers and administrators.

“Their day to day experience has been significantly changed, with more and more time allocated towards learning about the latest changes, and trying to comply with what the federal and state government demands of them,” Davids said.

A Maine Department of Education spokesperson largely disputed the report, and said that while “schools and educators have indeed been asked to do more than ever to support students,” the report “makes inaccurate comparisons using data outside of valid context.”

“Under this administration, the Maine Department of Education has focused on rebuilding trust with the educators and providing schools with the autonomy they need to meet the needs of their students and communities after the chaos and disrespect that characterized the previous administration,” the agency said. The agency noted investments in universal school meals, pre-K, career and technical education, and in meeting the state’s obligation to cover 55% of education costs.

The report also discusses several high-profile GOP culture war issues, from diversity initiatives and social-emotional learning to LGBTQ+ content in school library books. The report’s author didn’t outline any particular policy solutions to the issues, but said that residents should get more involved with local school boards, and determine what decisions should be made locally or statewide.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, noted that federal test scores are just a single piece of data to assess Maine schools. And he challenged the report’s criticism of some efforts such as social-emotional learning, an initiative that he said boosts students’ health and well-being.

“It’s part of a healthy well being, development of our students, for them to be connected, educated citizens, and beyond schooling,” Bailey said.

According to the report, Maine students’ reading and math scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress were at or near the highest in the country in 1992, but the state’s rankings have fallen in the ensuing decades. In the latest round of testing, two years ago, Maine saw a decline in students’ scores, similar to many other states, which experts attribute to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Maine DOE criticized the usage of the NAEP assessment in the report, which the agency said is given to a “small percentage of Maine learners” and “provides a limited and narrow snapshot of a small group of 4th and 8th graders.”

“NAEP is used to identify national trends and has proven not to be a valid or reliable measure individual states’ performance. Educators in Maine utilize classroom assessments, school data, Maine’s state assessments, the engagement and wellbeing levels in their classrooms, and countless other metrics to measure student learning,” the spokesperson said.