August 24, 2013

A-F school grading system fails to deliver significant changes

No penalties or rewards, no money for change and no follow-through has doomed Gov. Paul LePage's public school grades, educators say

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

State education officials and Gov. Paul LePage wanted a new A-F rating system of Maine public schools to spur change and improvement, but local school leaders say its influence so far has been small or non-existent because it lacks funding, rewards, penalties or significant assistance.

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Heather Perry, superintendent of Regional School Unit 3, based in Unity, at her office recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Local school leaders say they haven't received much help from the state, while the state Department of Education says it is hamstrung by the Legislature, which failed to provide needed funding. Also, see what parents and real estate agents have to say about the grades.

PART 2

Nearly half of the high schools that received Ds and Fs were penalized because not enough of their students took the Maine High School Assessment. Local principals say they do everything they can to encourage students to take the test, but they can't force students to give up a Saturday.

PART 3

Some schools earned good grades and may provide direction for those that didn't fare as well. What was the key to getting a top grade?

PART 4

Gov. Paul LePage implemented the grading system without a state law to go along with it, so it could be discontinued at any time once the governor leaves office. Is there enough support for the system in Maine to continue it even if the political winds blow in a different direction?

School leaders say the controversial report cards didn't tell them anything they didn't already know and that they've received little help from the state since the grades were released May 1. Legislation that was supposed to expand school improvement efforts failed in the spring.

As Maine schools prepare to reopen to students this week and next, many will continue with plans they'd already made to try to improve student achievement.

At several schools, the grades aren't a factor at all in those plans.

"We feel very strongly that we already knew our weaknesses; the grades were not news to us," said Heather Perry, superintendent of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, which had several schools with low grades. "We already had plans in place to improve those achievement results, and we're not deviating from those plans. The grades really didn't do anything other than distract parents and others politically that this was some huge change in the system, when it wasn't."

The state's A-F report cards for schools are supposed to get the public more involved in education and direct support for school improvement to the places where it's needed most. But there are no practical consequences of the grading system, and some school officials, parents and real estate agents say it also hasn't started the sorts of conversations about education that were intended.

Marcia Buker Elementary in Richmond received a C, and parent-teacher group President Samantha Johnston said people there talked about the grading system not accurately reflecting the school and state cuts to education funding.

"As far as getting a conversation started, it definitely did that, it definitely got people talking, but nothing with any sort of positive connotation," Johnston said. "Here's the problem, but what's the solution?"

The Department of Education has called and met with officials at schools that received a D or an F, and department officials believe the grades have created a new urgency around school improvement among school boards, administrators and educators.

"I'm encouraged by the calls we've gotten and the change in attention to the data," Chief Academic Officer Rachelle Tome said. "I think we're going to see some exciting things happen this year, I really do."

This year, Biddeford Middle School is adding a block of time for customized instruction and enrichment — something Principal Charles Lomonte said they probably would have done anyway, but the D grade and data gave them an extra push because they confirmed problems with the progress of underperforming students.

"It helped us ask the right questions," he said. "I think time will tell whether the process works."

Statewide, the most common grade was a C. Among elementary and middle schools, there were 42 As, 52 Bs, 215 Cs, 53 Ds and 49 Fs. There were 40 A-rated high schools, 22 Bs, 66 Cs, 15 Ds and 18 Fs.

No money for improvement

At least two studies of Florida's A-F grading system, which was a model for Maine's, have shown that staff at F schools responded by making changes that improved student performance. Stigma is a consequence for low-rated schools, the reports say, but what schools really responded to was a provision that gave school choice to students at schools with repeated F grades.

There's nothing like that in Maine's grading system. A low grade does not create any new requirements for a school, nor for the Department of Education in support of a low-rated school.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Kindergarten teacher Nancy Stover organizes her classroom on Tuesday at Dresden Elementary School.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Regional School Unit 12 administrators set goals Monday for the coming school year, during a retreat at an employee's Monmouth home.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Third-grade teacher Erica Atkinson puts students' names on a magnetic writing-status board as she readies her classroom on Tuesday at Dresden Elementary School.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan



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