The Right View: Schools, feds coerce parents over testing

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The scary letters have been coming to parents from superintendents and school boards as Smarter Balanced testing is either in progress, or about to get underway.

“Maine law requires public schools to have all students in grades three through eight and grade 11 participate in the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) for Mathematics and English Language Arts/ Literacy testing, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).”

Wow, that sounds serious.

There’s a law that says our children have to take a test? Well, gosh, what happens if a parent doesn’t want his or her child to take that test? Is the parent breaking the law? Is the child? Will the police come to their home and arrest them? I’m worried now.

This absurd scenario only goes to prove the point that of course, there is no such law. When asked to cite it, of course no one can. Sadly, no amount of pointing this out seems to make any difference. The letters that are going out to parents are disingenuous at best, and flat-out lies at worst.

Perhaps some of the superintendents and school boards sending them out really do think there is a law requiring our kids to take this test. I don’t know, and I can’t speak to what the motive might be. What I do know is that there is no law forcing kids to take any test whatsoever. We’d look more like Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union if that were truly the case.

School administrators need to be more forthcoming and admit that they are fearful of losing federal funding or being deemed failing schools if they have less than a 95 percent participation rate on the Smarter Balanced test. However, even that assertion requires further scrutiny, as what they are really talking about are requirements that were made under the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, tying funding to NCLB testing rates.

In August 2012, the U.S. Department of Education approved Maine’s application for a two-year waiver under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as NCLB. This exempted Maine from the law stating that 100 percent of students needed to show proficiency in reading and math by 2014. An utterly unattainable and foolish law if there ever was one.

The waiver also allowed Maine, over a six-year time period, to show it was making progress with students who were not proficient on statewide assessments. In addition, the waiver provided greater leniency in graduation rates for designated Title I schools, which have large concentrations of low-income students.

Low-income students are determined by the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced-cost lunch program. For an entire school to qualify for Title 1 funds, at least 40 percent of students must enroll in the lunch program. This is the funding schools say they are fearful of losing. A concern for some districts to be sure, were it true. But not for others such as Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth and Cumberland, just to name a few.

Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, what did Maine have to agree to in order to obtain this waiver, and to be eligible for Race to the Top grant funding? The Common Core State Standards.

That is coercion. “Here, states, adopt these standards which equate to essentially a nationalized curriculum, and we’ll make big, bad NCLB go away for you, and make you eligible to receive grant funding as well. Oh, and by the way, Maine, when you adopt the Common Core State Standards, you are also adopting the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia to test the curriculum that we’ll be implementing under Common Core. You have no choice.” Ironically, federal law prevents making such demands.

Common Core and Smarter Balanced were forced on states in exchange for applying for a waiver of a law that was impossible to uphold. Maine was granted its waiver application for NCLB, so is waived from the provisions in NCLB. Given that NCLB required a participation rate on standardized tests in order to receive federal funding or not be deemed failing, it is stunning that school administrators assert to parents that if they opt their kids out of the SBAC exam, school districts will lose federal funds. Brilliant and depressing, both at the same time.

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Julie McDonald-Smith lives in North Yarmouth. She is a registered nurse, former Capitol Hill staffer and former chairwoman of the Cape Elizabeth Republican Committee. Her column appears every other week.