(Illustration by Dan Kirchoff)
(Illustration by Dan Kirchoff)
A sense of frustration was heavy in the air as parents, teachers and school board members packed into the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee room last week to protest state and federally mandated school reforms and over-testing of students.

"I think it's time that we stand up and say enough is enough with all of this," said Lewiston school board member Linda Scott. "Why are we judging our teachers on testing that isn't even proven to work?"

The crowd had gathered to support LD 1153, sponsored by Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, which would allow local school districts to opt out of a range of new corporate-style mandates including so-called "proficiency-based graduation" requirements, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, and standardized testing aligned with the new national Common Core standards.

"This bill is about frustration from classroom teachers," said Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby- Chesley in support of the bill. "This bill is about the unfunded mandates. This bill is about giving teachers and local communities control over their schools."

Bear Parker, the father of three children in the Messalonskee school system, argued that the overreliance on standardized testing is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers increasingly "teach to the test."

"Learning is about inspiration and creativity, which helps a child embrace school and become passionate about what is being taught," said Parker. "If you take away a teacher's ability to teach freely, you are taking away a child's ability to learn. Our schools have been reduced to mere test-prep factories, and we are too often ignoring student learning and opportunity."

The bill comes as a backlash against over-testing has snowballed across the country, with more and more parents choosing to opt their children out of the new Common Core tests. This spring, roughly 90 percent of Camden Hills Regional High School juniors opted out, while some school districts in New York City are reporting opt-out rates as high as 70 percent, according to Associated Press. A 2013 Gallup poll found that fewer than 25 percent of parents surveyed believed that increased testing has helped local public schools.

Many teachers have also succumbed to "test exhaustion" as average teachers spend about 30 percent of their work time on "test-related tasks" like preparing students, proctoring, and reviewing results of standardized tests, according to a National Education Association (NEA) survey. The same survey reported that 72 percent of the teachers felt "moderate" or "extreme" pressure from school districts to improve test scores.

"It's not that teachers teach to the test, it's that the entire system is designed around the test," said Jackson resident and RSU 3 school board member Lisa Cooley, who is helping to lead the opt-out movement in Maine. "You have curriculum that is aligned to standards that is enforced by testing, which tests how well the curriculum is teaching the standards. So it's a merry-go-round."

And state lawmakers are responding to the anger as at least 11 states, including Maine, have introduced measures explicitly authorizing parents' right to opt out of tests, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. However, corporate-funded education reformers are determined to hold onto the gains they've made in the past decade.

"Setting rigorous standards and demonstrating individual proficiency will prepare students to succeed civically and economically," argued Edmund Cervone of the business-led school reform group Educate Maine, which includes represetatives of Bank of America, Bangor Savings Bank, Cianbro and the Chamber of Commerce on its board.

Department of Education spokesperson Samantha Warren said that while there will be no state penalties this year for districts with high opt-out rates, if fewer than 95 percent of students participate in the tests, federal Title 1 money could be withheld in the future. Currently, two-thirds of Maine schools receive federal funds, which amounts to about $150 million per year. Even for an affluent district like Camden-Rockport, that could result in a loss of $155,000 for K-8 and $112,000 for the high school. Maine's DOE has chosen to suspend the state's school grading system this year, but in the future, if fewer than 90 percent of students in a school take the test, the school automatically will receive an "F" grade on the state report card.

"We want the highest level of participation possible because assessments provide parents and educators honest, objective information on how students are doing; identify struggling students and schools so we can make sure they receive the help and resources they need to be successful; help us know if local and state policies and interventions are working; and hold schools accountable to the taxpayers who fund them to the tune of almost two billion dollars annually," wrote Warren in an email.

"Confusing and Ambiguous" Exam Questions

In March, Maine students in grades 3 to 8 and high school juniors began taking the new Smarter Balanced tests (SBACs, also known as the MEAs) in math and English language arts, which replace the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exams for elementary school students and the SATs for high-schoolers. The computer-based tests were designed by a 18-state consortium of academics to assess the national Common Core standards, which Maine implemented in 2013.

Advocates for the new tests say they are an improvement over previous exams, which only required students to recall information to do well.
"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 21st-century college and career success," said Maine Department of Education Acting Commissioner Tom Desjardin on the department's website. "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."

However, critics say the test questions are confusing and too difficult for the grade levels being assessed and not appropriate for students with special needs.

"Some of my students were so stressed by this test that they slammed their hands against the keyboard in frustration," testified Phyllis Hunter, a special education teacher at Lyon/Washburn District Elementary School in Aroos-took County. "Another student said he thought he was stupid, and another with tears in his eyes said he didn't understand anything that the test was asking. Finally another student just gave up and retyped the question."

As Five Town CSD Assistant Superintendent Maria Libby noted in a letter to parents last month, based on field tests of the SBACs last spring, only 41 percent of Camden Hills 11th-graders would be expected to achieve "proficiency" on the tests.

"In addition to the increased difficulty, teachers in our districts who took the practice test last spring found some of the reading test questions confusing and ambiguous," wrote Libby. "Some teachers actually disagreed with the 'correct' answer."

However, she said the major reason why 90 percent of students at CHRHS have opted out of the SBACs is because the high school students are more focused on performing well on the SATs and Advanced Placement exams, which are held at the same time. Elementary-school students in the Five Towns opted out in much fewer numbers. Libby noted that the total testing time for the SBAC test alone is at least eight and a half hours.

"When the SAT was the Maine State Test, that kind of killed two birds with one stone. Now there's an additional test that students have to take," said Libby. "I think [the opt-out trend is] more about the perceived value of that test at the junior level of high school. We have not had people opt out in the past, so if it is a philosophical thing about standardized testing, it's the first time they're exercising their right to opt out."

The Common Core Drops onto States

Many school reform critics say they're not only fed up with the testing, but also with the whole accountability movement that has accelerated since 2001's No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB tied federal funding to standardized test scores, but set an impossible target of 100-percent proficiency in English language arts and math. Realizing that there was no way for schools to meet that standard by the 2014 deadline, the federal government allowed states like Maine to get waivers from the requirements since every public school in Maine (except for the Maine School for Math and Science up in Limestone) would be failing without it, according to the DOE.

In 2009, President Obama introduced his "Race to the Top" (RTTT) initiative, which aimed to overhaul NCLB, but also continued the accountability crusade. The policy was set up like a contest where states competed against each for the chance to win millions of dollars in cash prizes to implement assessments aligned with state standards, student data collection policies, and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. RTTT also offered grants for states to adopt the new student performance standards known as the "Common Core."

Supporters of the Common Core argued that the country needed one set of universal performance benchmarks to assess so that there would be a common measure to compare individual schools. Prior to the Common Core, each state had its own standards and tests, which made making test score comparisons between states relatively meaningless. The Common Core itself is not a curriculum, but rather a set of goals. For instance, all kindergarteners must know how to "describe the connection between two individuals, events, ideas, or pieces of information in a text" and all eighth-graders must be able to "draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research."

Big Money in the Standards Movement

But contrary to popular belief, the Obama administration didn't create the Common Core. In reality, the Common Core was developed by a team that included the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the school reform nonprofit Achieve, which receives funding from several philanthropic foundations and corporations, including ExxonMobil, IBM, DuPont, Bayer USA Foundation, JP Morgan Chase Foundation, Microsoft, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among several others.

As a Washington Post investigation found last year, the Common Core probably wouldn't have seen the light of day were it not for a cash infusion of $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation helped build a vast political lobbying infrastructure to support adoption of the Common Core by funneling money to teachers unions like the National Education Association (the national arm of the MEA) and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Money flowed to policy groups on the right and left, funding research by scholars of varying political persuasions who promoted the idea of common standards," wrote Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post. "Liberals at the Center for American Progress and conservatives affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, who routinely disagree on nearly every issue, accepted Gates money and found common ground on the Common Core."

It was that massive injection of corporate funding that led many critics to question what the true intentions of these reform groups were besides the stated goals of ensuring school accountability and preparing future workers for the jobs of the 21st century. For instance, the new tests alone present a boon to testing groups, which received $360 million in federal grants to develop the tests.

Last year, British multinational Pearson, the world's largest education company, was awarded the contract to administer the Common Core-aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is given in 13 states at a cost of $29.50 per student. Following NCLB, the Pew Center on the States reported that spending on standardized tests had ballooned to $1.1 billion per year by 2008. Pew estimated that 90 percent of the testing business was owned by the five largest testing corporations - CTB/McGraw-Hill, Educational Testing Service, Harcourt Assessment, Riverside Publishing and Pearson.

There's also big money in creating the Common Core testing software and instructional materials. For instance, Amplify, which is an educational subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corps (owner of Fox News), has been awarded the contract for designing educational materials for the Smarter Balanced tests. The education investment firm GSV Advisors estimated that the K-12 instructional materials market was worth over $20 billion in 2012. A 2013 survey by EdNET Insight found that 68 percent of school districts planned to purchase new instructional materials aligned with the Common Core, which was an increase of 62 percent compared to two years earlier, according to Education Week magazine.

Corporate Philanthropy Conflicts of Interest

And sometimes that feeding frenzy for public education dollars has caused companies to cross legal and ethical boundaries. In 2013, the Pearson Charitable Foundation, a not-for-profit arm of Pearson Inc., was forced to pay out a $7.7 million settlement for violating nonprofit laws. An investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman revealed that the company developed "millions of dollars" worth of Common Core-aligned materials through its charitable arm that it intended to sell commercially. The suit concluded that Pearson used the Foundation in order "to attract foundation support and credibility for its commercial products." That foundation it attracted for support was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

In an interview with the Washington Post last year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates noted that the Common Core would "open the classroom to digital learning, making it easier for software developers - including Microsoft - to develop new products for the country's 15,000 school districts." Last year, Microsoft also announced that it had partnered with Pearson to introduce new Common Core Windows apps for the Surface, Microsoft's touch-screen tablet device. However, Gates dismissed the suggestion that he had poured millions into Common Core to personally enrich himself.

"I believe in the Common Core because of its substance and what it will do to improve education," he told the Washington Post. "And that's the only reason I believe in the Common Core."

Of course, as the Post also noted, Gates doesn't send his own kids to public schools with Common Core standards.

Common Core Sneaks Under the Radar

In the five years since 45 states adopted the Common Core, activists on both the right and left have come out strongly against the Common Core for varying reasons. Conservative groups have expressed fears that the standards represent a federal government takeover of education, while liberals fear it's a corporate coup. But one thing that many on boths sides believe is that the policy was slipped in without proper input from teachers and parents.

"It's really being pushed on students and parents," said Skip Bessey, who is the parent of three students in the Messalonskee school system. "My big concern is that it really hasn't been tested. I just feel like our kids are almost guinea pigs for the whole thing."

The Common Core was passed in states across the country in full public view, but there wasn't much media attention back then. In March of 2010, three months before the final draft of the Common Core standards were even released, Governor John Baldacci's administration presented the bill LD 1800 to adopt the standards so that the state could qualify for a chance to win a portion of the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants. Only seven individuals and groups testified on the bill and only the Maine DOE and the State Board of Education testified in support.

The MEA, the Maine School Boards Association, the Superintendents Association, and the Maine Principals Association all testified that they couldn't make an informed opinion on the bill because the standards weren't available for them to read. But the Legislature was told to act fast before the June 1st deadline or face losing a chance at winning a big pot of federal money in the middle of a deep budget crisis.

"Common sense says you should not agree to something sight-unseen, certainly not something as important as the standards that will drive our curriculum, assessments and requirements," warned Ashley O'Brien of the MSBA at the time. "Yet we are being asked to support this legislation as an emergency measure so it can go into effect in time for the June deadline of the RTTT application."

In the end, the committee voted 12 to 1 to support the bill. If it wasn't for one lone committee member, Rep. Ed Finch (D-Fairfield), who warned that "federal money always comes with strings attached," the bill would have likelypassed unanimously. Finch also expressed doubts that Maine would even win any of the RTTT money. With some debate, the Common Core passed 111-28 in the Maine House and unanimously in the Senate.

And Finch was right. Maine never did win any of the RTTT funding to implement the Common Core. In full disclosure, I voted for LD 1800 while serving in the Legislature in 2010.

LePage and the MEA Reverse Positions

In 2011, Gov. LePage signed another bill to officially include the Common Core in the Maine Learning Results, but the governor has since reversed his opinion on the controversial standards. In an interview with WABI TV during his re-election campaign last October, he said he no longer supported the Common Core because he didn't think it was tough enough.

In the years since Common Core was adopted, the MEA has gone from skepticism to supporting it, and now "not fully" supporting it. Last month, the teachers' union posted a statement on its website arguing that the funding for implementing the Common Core has not been adequate and that the standards themselves often lack "developmental appropriateness and clarity," which it said was due to the limited role teachers have had in creating them. The MEA has also called for a moratorium on "high-stakes" testing, which refers to policies that tie state assessments to state school grading and teacher effectiveness evaluations.

The LePage administration has proposed that test scores make up a minimum of 20 percent of a teacher effectiveness evaluation, but has not been able to get that number through the Legislature due to opposition from Democrats and the MEA. Currently, the Obama administration requires that test scores in language arts and math for grades 4 through 8 be considered when evaluating a teacher.

However, as Five Town CSD Assistant Superintendent Maria Libby noted, the state still has not specified how schools must use the data from the SBAC exams. She added that teachers in the math and language arts could be most negatively impacted by poor student scores because content subjects like social studies won't be assessed.

"So schools are going to have to figure out how to best use that data without having a significant detrimental impact," said Libby. "It's kind of an untested test and we're being forced to use the data from it in teacher evaluations, which philosophically there's not a lot of research to support in the first place."

A Future of the Opt-Out Movement?

Given the recent backlash against over-testing, time will tell whether the political tides are finally changing. In the era of No Child Left Behind and the pro-school-reform documentary "Waiting for Superman," a sense of momentum took hold in the high-stakes testing movement. For years, test scores have been used as a club to discipline "bad teachers" and close "low performing" urban public schools in favor of privately managed charter schools. But in those days, it was the poorer inner cities, which have very little political power, that were facing the zealous drive for data-driven accountability standards.

"In schools for the rich, children get taught. In schools for the poor, children get tested," former testing advocate-turned-critic Diane Ravitch once observed.

But as corporate-style school reforms begin consuming suburban and rural schools, many voters are beginning to understand firsthand what it's like to have their children reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. Still, given the bipartisan drive for higher test scores, from President Obama to Governor LePage, it will be a challenge to roll back years of top-down reforms.

In 2013, Obama administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a fierce proponent of accountability reforms, was clearly beginning to feel the heat when he lashed out, saying it was "fascinating" that the anti-Common Core movement was being driven by "white suburban moms who - all of a sudden - their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were. And that's pretty scary."

Last week Duncan vowed to intervene if states don't crush the test opt-out movement in its tracks.

RSU 3 School Board member Lisa Cooley acknowledged that it will be much more difficult to mobilize parents to opt out next year due to the threat of financial penalties, but she said at least the message is finally resonating.

"Kids' awareness has been raised as well," said Cooley. "They're going to take these tests and they're going to have more of an understanding that the fact that they're struggling through it isn't right."