Passages Mentioning Suicide Prompt Maine Chief To Recall Test

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Maine's commissioner of education said last week that his sudden decision to pull the plug on a statewide test stemmed from his belief that questions about suicide were too sensitive a topic for high school juniors.

Commissioner Wayne Mowatt postponed until May the Maine Educational Assessment for 11th graders after a superintendent raised concerns. Two questions on the test referred to reading passages that mention suicide.

"It was very ill-advised to select a topic that was becoming such a significant problem for teenage kids in the state of Maine," Mr. Mowatt said last week.

Officials recalled the tests on Friday, March 24. They were to have been given the next school day--the following Monday.

The recall was the latest in a series of controversies to surround the Maine assessment, which is given to 4th, 8th, and 11th graders.

This year for the first time, the test contains no multiple-choice questions. All questions require essay or open-response answers.

But after critics charged that the new format was unclear and too difficult for 4th graders, the test's designers have agreed to review the format.

And the release last month of the 8th graders' scores on the tests, which rank students as having novice, basic, advanced, or distinguished mastery of material, raised fears among some teachers that such terms would harm self-esteem.

Concerns About Suicide

Mr. Mowatt, a veteran school administrator who is new to the state chief's job, said Maine has one of the highest teenage-suicide rates in the nation. A recent series of articles in the Portland newspapers detailed the phenomenon, and Gov. Angus King is convening an advisory group on the issue.

"My concern was I didn't think it was appropriate for our teenagers to be exposed in a sterile, nonsupportive atmosphere to that type of thing," Mr. Mowatt said.

The commissioner said he was not trying to "sanitize tests." He said he encourages schools to discuss suicide in classroom lessons or in guidance counseling, where peers and adults can provide context and additional perspectives.

As a result of the snag, Mr. Mowatt said he will create an annual review process to weed out sensitive topics from the test.

Decisions about such volatile topics, Mr. Mowatt said, "need to be made at the local level and should not be something to come down from the state on a statewide type of examination."

The controversial section asked students to read and answer questions on two poems, "Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson and "Summer Person" by Glenna Johnson Smith, as well as on a short personal reflection by Ms. Smith that talked about similarities between the poems.

"Summer Person" does not mention suicide, but in "Richard Cory," the title character "went home and put a bullet through his head."

Ms. Smith's anecdote talks about a teenage suicide. The questions posed to students, however, did not refer to the issue.

Vol. 14, Issue 28

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