The percentage of Maine students at or above state expectations on standardized English exams improved by more than five points in 2018-19, while science and math remained roughly the same.

Almost 56 percent of students were at or above expectations in English language arts in 2018-2019, up from 50.7 percent a year earlier.

That’s according to results of the Maine Education Assessment, the only statewide exam given annually to all Maine students. Results of the 2018-19 tests for individual districts and schools were released Friday and can be viewed on the Department of Education’s website.

Science scores showed slight improvement over the previous year, with 60 percent of students at or above expectations in 2018-2019 compared to 58.9 percent the year before.

Math scores dropped slightly, with 35.6 percent of students at or above expectations compared to 37 percent in 2017-2018.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin cautioned against using the scores as a definitive indicator of how schools are performing.

“This is one assessment,” she said. “Because it gives a common measure and is used for reporting requirements, it tends to garner a lot of public attention, but I feel it’s often used inappropriately and disproportionately as a marker of how our schools are doing.”

The assessment is given in the spring to students in grades 3 through 8. This is the fourth year those grades have taken the “empowerME” test – high school juniors take the SAT. The federal government requires state assessments, which are used to determine how federal money is apportioned to schools.

Last year was also the second year in which students in the lower grades were given a pilot essay portion of the exam, used to gather information on their writing performance and guide instruction, but problems with the scoring mechanism the last two years have rendered the data unusable.

Makin said the state won’t continue to develop an essay assessment with Cognia, the Georgia-based company that administers the empowerME test, but she is interested in pursing writing assessments created and scored by Maine teachers.

Makin, a former Maine principal of the year who was named commissioner just over a year ago, said she is also interested in working with districts, many of whom have their own internal assessment systems, to develop a more meaningful statewide assessment system that can be used to set goals.

“Right now we have no particular valid, viable way to say, ‘Here’s how a school is doing,’ and in that vacuum these test scores tend to take on inflated significance,” she said.

How districts performed on the test in comparison to one another was not available Friday, though results for individual districts and schools were posted on the DOE website earlier.

Results in Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, largely reflected those of the state.

Districtwide, 55.4 percent of Portland students were at or above expectations in English, compared with 49.5 percent in 2017-18.

Thirty-five percent were at or above expectations in math and 51.7 percent in science.

In 2017-18, 36.2 percent of Portland students were at or above expectations in math and 49.5 percent in science.

Scores at Casco Bay High School, which showed huge year-over-year improvements in English, math and science in 2017-18, saw decreases of 10 percentage points or larger the following year, bringing the scores more in line with previous years’ results.

Students at Casco Bay were 56.5 percent at or above expectations in English, 35.1 percent in math and 50.5 percent in science.

Other Portland schools that saw significant changes include the East End Community School, Longfellow Elementary School and Lyman Moore Middle School, all of which saw year-over-year English scores improve by more than 13 percentage points.

Lyman Moore also saw an 18 percentage point increase in the number of students at or above expectations in science, at 65.7 percent.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana would not discuss Portland’s results with a reporter, saying in an email that the district is still analyzing them and will present findings at a Feb. 4 school board meeting.

Along with the assessment results, the Department of Education also released other 2018-19 data Friday, including graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and per pupil spending.

In 2018-19, Maine had 178,398 students in grades pre-K through 12. Forty-two percent were economically disadvantaged; 88.9 percent were white and 17.8 percent were students with disabilities.

Per-pupil spending in 2018-19 was $13,851, down from $14,113 in 2017-18.

The four-year high school graduation rate was 87.5 percent and the percentage of students who were chronically absent – defined as missing 10 percent or more school days, including for excused absences – was 16.8 percent.

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