AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine students in grades three through eight scored lower on the state’s reading and math exams in 2013 than they did the year before.

The tests were taken by nearly all students last October and are used to satisfy state and federal school accountability requirements. The scores also are used to determine each school’s grade on its Maine Department of Education-issued report card.

Sixty-nine percent of the students tested demonstrated that they were reading at grade level, according to a statement released by the state Department of Education on Monday. That’s down from 71 percent the year before.

Just over 60 percent of students demonstrated on the test that their math skills were at grade level, compared with 62 percent proficiency in 2012.

The biggest decline seemed to be in eighth grade. Only 56 percent of eighth-graders demonstrated on the test that their math skills were on grade level, which is down by 5 percentage points from the year before. Seventy-one percent of eighth-graders are reading on grade level, according to these test results, also down by 5 percentage points from the previous year.

Eighth-grade students’ scores also dropped on a writing exam administered only to eighth- and fifth-graders that isn’t used as a state and federal accountability metric. Forty-seven percent of eighth-graders showed on the test that their writing skills were proficient, which is down from 57 percent the year before.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, cautioned against comparing one year’s eighth-grade class to the next.

“What we should be doing is comparing a student’s progress from year to year,” she said.

But Rachelle Tome, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, said comparing a particular grade’s test results over the years does not necessarily tell a better story. She said this year’s eighth-graders were scoring better on these tests when they were in sixth grade.

Fifth-grade writing and math scores were the only scores that went up between last year and 2012. Writing scores went up 5 percentage points to 50 percent proficiency and math scores went up 1 percentage point to 63 percent proficiency.

Though reading scores dropped overall, more than two-thirds of students demonstrated proficiency in every grade level.

“While I am encouraged to see elementary proficiency remains so high — especially in reading — we cannot accept these troubling declines,” Department of Education Commissioner Jim Rier said in a prepared statement. “These latest testing results must renew the commitment of Maine schools to improving student outcomes through embracing innovative approaches, enhancing educator effectiveness, and engaging parents and the public in supporting schools and students.”

For Tome, the most concerning area is the third-grade scores.

“Third grade is a barometer,” Tome said. “You want third-graders to be able to read. That’s where you would hope that they turn the corner from learning to read to reading to learn.”

Almost a third of Maine’s third-graders were not reading on grade level, according to these scores.

Education professionals said interpreting the test results is more complicated than simply assuming teaching and learning are on the decline.

“Maine’s rates of children in poverty continue to grow, which would predict that these scores would go down without additional wrap-around programs,” said Flynn Ross, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern Maine.

The portion of Maine students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch has grown steadily in recent years to 44.8 percent this school year.

A report presented by University of Southern Maine researchers to the Legislature in January showed that there is a strong correlation between poverty and student performance.

Tome also said the timing of the test in October is not ideal.

“It’s always been a concern that you’re taking a test a month in and that you’re testing on the learning that occurred in the previous year,” she said. “We always worry about the summer loss.”

This is the last year Maine schools will use this exam, known as the New England Common Assessment Program, to measure student learning. Next year, students will take an exam at the end of the school year that tests them on the Common Core standards, a set of expectations that 45 states have adopted for their students. Educators predict that the new exam will be harder and that students scores could drop further as a result.

Nell Gluckman

Nell is the education reporter for the Bangor Daily News, but she will be helping out the political team by covering the 2nd Congressional District election this year. Before joining the Bangor Daily News...