Last March, Counseling Today reported that Maine Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron was planning to replace the state’s junior year educational assessment test with the SAT, a move that the Maine Counseling Association (MeCA) tried prudently, but fruitlessly, to block. Since that time, the state of Maine has received notification that it is in “nonapproved” status with No Child Left Behind requirements because the SAT isn’t a sufficient testing tool. Additionally, and some are questioning whether it is mere coincidence, certain school counselors in Maine have been denied a significant salary increase for next year.

In a letter to Gendron, the U.S. Department of Education said in part: “… the Department laid out new approval categories in a letter to the Chief State School Officers on April 24, 2006. These categories better reflect where States collectively are in the process of meeting the statutory standards and assessment requirements and where each State individually stands. Based on these new categories, the current status of the Maine standards and assessment system is Non-Approved. This indicates that Maine’s standards and assessment system administered in the 2005–06 school year has several fundamental components that are missing or that do not meet the statutory and regulatory requirements and that the evidence provided indicates that the State will not be able to administer a fully approved assessment in the 2006–07 school year.”

The letter further informed Gendron that because Maine failed to meet NCLB requirements for the 2005–06 school year and will not be able to come into compliance during the 2006–07 school year, the U.S. Department of Education intends to withhold 25 percent (approximately $28,500) of the state’s Fiscal Year 2006 Title I, Part A administrative funds.

The state commissioner was allowed an opportunity for rebuttal with the DOE in the fall. In order to meet the testing requirements for NCLB, Gendron is adding a supplementary science and math exam to the SAT (the SAT lacks a full science portion, while the math section is actually a level higher than the national requirements for assessment). The new math problems are being added in an attempt to fairly assess those students who have not completed Algebra I, a class that is not required for graduation in Maine.

A rock and a hard place

Many Maine school counselors are shaking their heads and biting their tongues, but they are determined to support their students and to work with the state DOE. “We made it clear to our supervisors and principals that using the SAT was a violation of our ACA Code of Ethics as counselors and (that it was) an inadequate tool for assessment,” says ACA North Atlantic Region Chair John Parkman, a high school counselor in Maine.

Despite their objections to using the SAT as an assessment test, school counselors in Maine pressed on and helped students prepare for the change. “The participation rate was very good,” Parkman says, “but the problem was that we had special ed kids (and) Vo-Tech kids who didn’t have the math background, and there was a reading problem. The SAT assumes (certain levels of comprehension and skills) because it’s developed for college prep students.”

“We did everything we could to stop it,” says Ben Milster, past president of MeCA, “but once we couldn’t, we did everything we could to advocate for the students.”

For some counselors, the partnership between the state Education Department and the College Board, the association trademarking and controlling the administration of the SAT, is troublesome. “In my opinion, I want to question why the College Board has such an influence and impact on the decision-making regarding how we meet the NCLB (requirements),” Parkman says. “Why is the College Board so engaged with our personnel at the Department of Education?”

According to Milster, last spring the federal government wrote some preliminary letters to Gendron informing her that the SAT was not an appropriate instrument to measure the state curriculum and learning results. “And low and behold, this summer we got a letter saying Maine flunks — the SAT is not acceptable. We are one of two states in the country that failed with NCLB,” Milster says. “The plan, from what I understand from the Commissioner of Education, is to create another exam — a science exam with math components — which would be given at a different time than the SAT. So now kids are going to have to take the SAT and another test on top of that. Apparently, if the state carries through with those, it will be an approved assessment for Maine.”

The question on many counselors’ minds is why the state doesn’t just simply create a new Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) test, which was used prior to being replaced with the SAT. Milster believes he knows part of the answer. “This is a multimillion dollar contract with the College Board,” he says.

Three years ago, as part of an initiative with the Maine DOE, Milster was sponsored to attend a College Board forum in Boston. While there, the College Board held a reception exclusively for Maine school counselors. At the reception, state school officials announced they were beginning a collaboration with the College Board.

In 2005, a state bill was passed that included one line buried in the bureaucratic language which gave the state commissioner the authority to change the MEA. “That was the key legislation that gave (Gendron) the power to make the change,” Milster says. “It passed. No one paid attention to it. No one knew about it until it was too late. So this was set in motion for a while. She had all her ducks in a row with the key players.”

Interestingly enough, Milster says, the guidelines for using the SAT, as written by the College Board, explicitly state that the test should not be used for state educational assessments. Milster sent an e-mail to Arthur Dole, the regional director for the New England College Board, asking how the College Board could justify going against its own guidelines.

“I got an incredibly long, very condescending letter back that totally dodged the question,” Milster says. “But finally, their answer was that it could only be used (if) all students take it.” He adds that since Maine initiated the SAT as a mandatory assessment for all juniors, it can be used for that purpose. “That’s how stretched they are,” he continues. “But it’s all moot because it’s a done deal. It’s just absolutely astonishing that this happened.”

The juniors’ SAT test scores have been returned to the schools in Maine. To date, however, no transposition scale has been created to interpret the SAT numerical scores, meaning there is no basis for determining whether a student exceeds the state’s standards, meets the standards, is working toward the standards or does not meet the standards, which are the categories defined by NCLB. Currently, an internal committee within the Maine DOE is looking into this issue.

Coincidence or retaliation?

To add to the disappointment and frustration of many Maine school counselors, those working under teacher contracts with a National Board Counseling Certification were passed over for a $3,000 state-funded salary increase — an increase the Maine Legislature awarded to all teachers who hold a national board certification.

Parkman, who meets that criterion, actually signed a new contract reflecting the raise. He received the bonus for a month, but was surprised to find on the next payday that his raise had been terminated and the total additional compensation he had received previously had been deducted from his current paycheck. He was told that someone within the state DOE had contacted his superintendent to explain that he was ineligible for the raise because he was not a “teacher in a discipline.”

Maine seems to be sending the message that only an educator who teaches a class is entitled to the increase. Furthermore, national certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors is not being recognized as equivalent to a teacher’s national certification, which is blatant discrimination against school counselors who work under teacher contracts, Parkman says.

In a letter to his superintendent, Patricia Hopkins, Parkman wrote, “Is school counseling not recognized as a viable ‘discipline’? … School counselors are governed by the same rules as teachers in earning our recertification units, and we fall under the contract as equals with teachers when setting Step Levels and all other benefits required in teacher contractual agreements with school boards.”

Parkman took immediate action and posted messages about school counselors being denied the raise on various counseling and education listservs. He was contacted via e-mail by Shelley Reed, a guidance consultant with the state DOE, who stated that the denial could be interpreted as an error. “The commissioner has said that she feels that counselors not receiving a stipend for their national certification is an oversight and that she wants to do something about this next year,” Reed wrote.

That’s not enough for Parkman. “The discrimination is just unbelievable,” he says. “Some counselors feel — at least I do — that it was a vendetta because we questioned the SAT issue and went on record against it. It seems like it’s a pretty significant oversight.”

Officiails at NBCC estimate that the issue could affect approximately 75 nationally certified school counselors in Maine. “Even if there were just two of us (affected), it still doesn’t make any sense,” Parkman says. “It’s just another attempt to separate school counselors from teachers, which is not a good working relationship.” Still, Parkman remains optimistic about the vague message he received from Reed.

As Counseling Today was preparing to go to press, Gendron contacted the newspaper and said the state DOE was submitting language for the Legislature to consider that would include counselors who hold a national certification in the salary increase.