Harpswell charter school gets a month to fix compliance error

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HARPSWELL — Harpswell Coastal Academy has been served with a formal notice of non-compliance by the Maine Charter School Commission for failing to administer required, standardized tests to its students.

In their letter, commissioners express concern that HCA has not conducted standardized testing, and suggest the the testing system chosen by the school is an inappropriate selection and will not provide meaningful results.

“They’ve got to be held accountable,” commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint said Wednesday. “They’re doing a great job, they have a wonderful program, but I think sometimes you get so caught up with the kids that you forget some of the other things that you need to do.”

The charter school has been given until June 5 to address the commission’s concerns.

HCA Headmaster John D’Anieri on Wednesday said the school was “surprised” by the commission’s decision to send a formal warning.

“I think it is fair to say that some of the concerns that were raised in (Tuesday’s) meeting were concerns that had not been raised previously with us,” D’Anieri said. “Now that those concerns are being raised, we have to figure out how to address them.”

Last fall, the school neglected to administer the New England Common Assessment Program exam to its sixth- and ninth-grade students. The NECAP is a required test in all Maine public schools, but HCA staff were unaware they needed to administer the test, which is usually applied in the fifth and eighth grades.

According to MCSC Executive Director Bob Kautz, the school later learned it was still required to conduct the test, and attempted to remedy its mistake, but the NECAP testing window had closed. The initial testing provides the commission with a baseline so it can track student progress at the school, he said. 

In a November 2013 monitoring report, commissioners determined the NECAP failure was “an oversight” and gave the school until March to submit an alternative testing model.

According to Lapoint, HCA officials returned to the commission in February to suggest using a test designed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, but then decided to use a test called Accuplacer instead, partially because of the cost of the NWEA test. 

The Accuplacer test, however, is usually administered to incoming college or university students to determine if remedial instruction is required. 

D’Anieri said while the high cost of the NWEA factored into the school’s decision to use Accuplacer, it also felt the alternate test would allow the school to identify areas where students might need help, preventing the need for remedial education down the line.

“Since that is a widespread and known obstacle to success, we felt that using the actual exam and coaching kids gradually towards successful completion of the Accuplacer, it would have the additional benefit of making them more successful in college,” he explained. 

Commissioners, on the other hand, were less taken with the idea of applying an upper-level test to sixth- and ninth-grade students.

“In particular, the Commission is deeply concerned that the test is infrequently used to assess student learning in your Division 1 grades and does not provide meaningful normative data to compare students statewide or nationwide,” commissioners wrote in their letter.

In addition, commissioners noted the test might not “produce meaningful measurement of student progress as compared to the Maine Learning Results, and your school’s determination of ‘proficiency’ based on that assessment will lack justification and rigor.”

The commission’s response to the school’s lack of testing has provoked a debate at HCA over whether to move ahead with the Accuplacer exam – which commissioners may not find sufficient – or switch back to using NWEA and call the episode “a lesson learned,”  D’Aneiri said. 

Regardless of which test HCA ultimately chooses, the school will be required to administer it to students for the next four years, Kautz noted. 

Because the school originally planned to use the Smarter Balanced test being adopted statewide next year, it may need to test its students twice for the duration of its contract.

Kautz said he was unsure what action the commission will consider if HCA does not come into compliance by June 5, but noted the testing results are one of many performance metrics set out in its contract, and would not be the sole determination of the school’s ability. 

“It’s unfortunate we’re dealing with this because in all appearances, in all visits to the school, its a very healthy environment,” Kautz said. 

“There’s a lot of good going on there,” he said. “There’s this one oversight that’s created a bit of difficulty but I don’t think it is fair for anyone to make the estimation that there’s something wrong with this school just because of it.”

HCA opened last September with about 60 students. It plans to eventually grow to 280 students in grades 6-12.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @midcoastmcguire

Sidebar Elements

Harpswell Coastal Academy Headmaster John D’Anieri, right, and Assistant Headmaster Carrie Branson lead a discussion about sustainable living with their advisory group students last September.