New SAT data shows more than half of high school juniors still testing below grade level

Maine students’ performance on the SAT improved slightly last year in areas that count in the Maine Department of Education’s ranking of high schools, namely math and reading, though students lost ground from the previous year in science and writing.

All in all, the new scores show that more than half of Maine’s third-year high school students are scoring below proficiency — which means below their grade level — across all subjects measured by the SAT.

The SAT, which in the past has been used by colleges and universities to measure applicants’ propensity for learning, is the only test used in Maine to aggregate the performance of high schools. As a result, 96 percent of Maine’s third-year high school students took the test last year, which is the highest percentage in the nation.

Aside from serving as a tool for parents and families to measure the performance of their local schools, the SAT scores will also factor into a controversial A-through-F grading system unveiled by the Department of Education earlier this year. Former Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said at the time that high schools would receive a new round of grades this fall when new SAT data became available, but later said those grades would be delayed until next Spring when testing for lower grades is complete.

The DOE highlighted the higher SAT scores in math and reading in a press release on Tuesday, though the variation from the previous year across all categories was within a couple of percentage points.

The biggest improvement was in critical reading, where 48.9 percent of students showed proficiency on the test, up from 47.2 percent in 2011-12. In math, 48.1 percent of students tested proficient, up from 47.2 percent in the prior year’s test. The math score represents one of the best performances Maine students have shown in the eight years the SAT has been the state’s chief assessment tool for high schools.

It’s interesting that last year’s percentages of students proficient in reading and math were exactly the same, which makes me wonder if we’re talking about the same group of students scoring well across both categories. Because the Department of Education protects individual student data, all we can do is guess.

The new marks for science and writing, which have never been great to begin with, were slightly worse, according to the most recent SAT data. In writing, Maine students slipped from 46.8 percent proficient to 43.7 percent. In science, which is an area that has received considerable attention in Maine since Gov. Paul LePage and others have focused on STEM learning (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math), Maine students dropped from 44.8 percent proficient to 41.3 percent in 2012-13.

There is little point in trying to compare Maine’s aggregate SAT scores to those in other states because while almost all Maine students take the SAT, only college-bound students participate in most other states. (This fact was part of the reason why Maine was called the “dumbest state” in the U.S. by a national blog, which was the topic of a State & Capitol blog last month).

To see how your local high school scored, check the DOE’s online Data Warehouse by clicking here.

Rachelle Tome, the chief academic officer for the DOE, said in a press release that the improved scores in reading and math show Maine is moving “in the right direction” while the lower scores in writing and science show that Maine schools are not focusing enough on subject areas for which they are not held accountable. From the press release:

Chief Academic Officer Tome says what is measured is valued, and she’s not surprised to see slippage in achievement areas where schools are not held accountable for the results of their students.

But Tome said parents and the public should still become familiar with their local school’s student performance across all content areas and be asking questions of their superintendents and schools boards about efforts underway to support students and improve their outcomes.

One set of data that will be interesting to compare to those from traditional public schools is test scores for the state’s new charter schools, of which there are five. The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences (MEANS) in Fairfield, which opened in September 2012 as Maine’s first high school-level charter school, had no aggregate SAT data posted in the DOE’s online Data Warehouse on Wednesday afternoon, even though other schools’ scores were posted. I have a query in to the Department of Education about the MEANS scores; check here for updates. The other new charter schools are either elementary schools, which do their testing later in the year, or schools that just opened last month.

UPDATE: Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said in an email to me that it appears that the MEANS scores were not provided to the state by the assessment administrator, Measured Progress. “We’re looking into why that is and will load the data into the warehouse as soon as we can,” she wrote, adding that according to the Maine Charter School Commission, 12 students from MEANS took the test last May.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.