Opening day of new statewide online assessment a success

The following Priority Notice from Maine DOE Acting Commissioner Tom Desjardin was sent to Maine schools on Tuesday, March 17, announcing that the first day of the new statewide assessment had been a success and outlining Department support for schools throughout the March 16-May 29 testing window.

Dear Educators,

Yesterday, thousands of Maine students began the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) for Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy developed by Smarter Balanced. More than a decade after we began putting technology in the hands of Maine students and teachers to support their 21st century learning and teaching, our state is finally using this familiar environment to assess what students know and are able to do.

From what you’ve told us, the first day of online testing was a success. In the words of one district: “So far. So good.” Schools reported no major problems and expressed appreciation that our Department’s staff had quick answers to any questions asked. 

I’m glad things got off to such a good start because I believe in the incredible potential of this new online assessment and I know how hard so many of you are working to see that potential fully realized. On behalf of Maine students, thank you.

Unlike the bubble tests of the past, this new assessment measures higher-order thinking and how students actually apply the skills they should be learning and need for 21 century college and career success. Its adaptive abilities – meaning questions and their difficulty are adjusted based on a participant’s previous answers  –  helps teachers better help their students by more accurately pinpointing individual student strengths and weaknesses. Results, available in weeks rather than months, more quickly inform instruction and interventions. Universal tools, accommodations and designated supports like the ability to highlight or have the text read aloud, are available thanks to the online delivery. These integrated features alleviate test-taking anxiety and better support the unique needs of each student, especially those with disabilities. And the lengthened 11-week test window gives schools more administration flexibility and creates less stress for students, even though the assessment actually requires significantly fewer hours to administer than the NECAP.

That said, the administration of this new assessment won’t be perfect. As with the large-scale rollout of any new technology, there may be glitches. While we don’t want to overwhelm your inboxes, we promise to let you know immediately of any issues that may impact assessment administration. And we ask that you please do the same so we can push American Institutes for Research (AIR) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to resolve any problems as quickly as humanly possible. After all, if we don’t know about it, we can’t make sure it gets fixed.

As part of our commitment to keeping the lines of communication with you open, each Thursday during the March 16-May 29 testing window, myself and other Department leaders working to support the assessment will be available via a conference call from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. to take your questions and hear your testing experiences both good and bad. We’ll start each of these weekly calls by providing an honest status report on how the assessment is going and passing along best practices that districts have shared with us and then turn the call over to you. We invite you to participate by dialing (877) 455-0244 and using conference code 6540808455. You can also email questions you’d like answered on the call in advance to communications.doe@maine.gov.

Finally, as testing begins I want to again thank you for all your hard work to prepare your students and your schools. I know a new test, measuring new standards and being delivered in a new way is bringing about a lot of change all at once. I hope our Department’s decision to suspend A-F school grading this year and also to support the extension of the educator evaluation pilot by another year has helped alleviate any anxiety you may be feeling. I know some parents too are concerned about the new assessment system and are preemptively choosing to opt their children out. While that is certainly their right and non-participants will receive no score, I worry those parents and their child’s teachers will miss out on the valuable information that comes from the assessment that can be used to better support each and every student in achieving their full potential.

Despite the handful of opt-outs in some districts, I am confident based on the preview of the summative environment I’ve seen and the feedback from those who have begun taking the test that this inaugural year of the new Smarter Balanced developed MEA will provide a meaningful assessment. Moving forward, we will only improve upon the benchmark the test this spring sets, both in terms of student performance and ease of administration.

Best of luck to your students on the new assessment and thank you for all your efforts to ensure its first administration is a success.

Sincerely,

Tom Desjardin, Acting Commissioner
Maine Department of Education