August 26, 2013

Maine high schools offer enticements to increase testing participation

Free breakfast, day off, taxi rides among bonuses promised to students to take SAT and similar tests, which figure prominently in Gov. Paul LePage's A-F school ratings system

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Amid the angst when report cards for schools were released in May, perhaps no one was more frustrated or disappointed than the leaders of schools with letter grades that made them look worse than their test scores and graduation rates say they are.

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Skowhegan Area High School Prinicipal Rick Wilson at the front office recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Gardiner Area High School Principal Chad Kempton works on his laptop in the library on Wednesday at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Twenty high schools were penalized a letter grade on the state's A-F report cards for having less than 95 percent participation on standardized tests in 2011–12. A participation rate lower than 90 percent causes an automatic F.

Bonny Eagle High School (Standish) - D

Boothbay Region High School - C

Deering High School (Portland) - D

Forest Hills Consolidated School (Jackman) - F

Foxcroft Academy (Dover-Foxcroft) - D

Fryeburg Academy - D

Gardiner Area High School - D

George Stevens Academy (Blue Hill) - C

Jonesport-Beals High School - D

Lee Academy - F

Lewiston High School - D

Maine Central Institute (Pittsfield) - D

Massabesic High School (Waterboro) - D

Mountain Valley High School (Rumford) - D

Orono High School - C

Portland High School - D

Sanford High School - D

Skowhegan Area High School - D

Spruce Mountain High School North (Jay) - D

Woodland Junior-Senior High School (Baileyville) - F




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.


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.


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?


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?

Twenty of the 122 high schools that received grades were docked a letter grade for falling short of the threshold of 95 percent participation on state standardized tests of math and reading in 2012. Elementary and middle schools are subject to the same penalty, but all of them met the threshold.

A few of the schools that were penalized were knocked from a B down to a C, but most of them ended up with a D or an F.

In central Maine region, Gardiner Area High School, Maine Central Institute and Skowhegan Area High School earned enough points based on student achievement to earn C's, but instead they received D's because of test participation.

Less than 90 percent participation is an automatic F. Only Penquis Valley High School in Milo fell below that bar, but the school received an F on points, regardless of any penalty.

Participation is a new standard for most high schools in Maine. Officials at the schools that were penalized say they always try to ensure that as many of their students as possible take the SAT, which is the main part of the Maine High School Assessment, but they argue the participation rate isn't a real indicator of educational quality.

"The fact that we were dinged a letter grade based on SAT participation I think is ludicrous," Skowhegan Principal Rick Wilson said. "The number of kids taking the SAT is a lot different from how much your kids learn and are able to do. It's not educationally sound."

The 95 percent participation requirement is part of the No Child Left Behind Act and also Maine's waiver from some provisions of the federal law. But that accountability system applies only to schools receiving money through Title I, the federal program to assist schools with large numbers of low-income students.

While about 80 percent of Maine's elementary and middle schools are in Title I, only 20 percent of public high schools are.

The Department of Education's performance grading system for schools is intended to expand accountability beyond Title I schools by publicizing student achievement with A-F grades, although there are no real consequences attached.

Rachelle Tome, the state's chief academic officer, said participation rates are included in the grade calculations because they're important. Unless all or nearly all students take a test, the scores aren't representative of the entire school, and administrators could boost scores by limiting testing of low-performing students.

Participation is a common factor in A-F systems, though the specifics vary from state to state.

"It goes back to what's measured is valued," Tome said. "In some of the high schools particularly, there has not been any accountability for non-Title I schools. ... There were no sanctions, there were no punitive measures or financial constrictions that were put on their district or their school. I'm sure they were looking, but (participation) wasn't something that bubbled up as critical mass for them."

Actually, participation does not differ significantly depending on a high school's Title I status. Among Title I schools, 15 percent did not reach 95 percent participation, and 14 percent of non-Title I schools did not.

Fully half of the state's town academies, however, received the penalty. The schools received grades because at least 60 percent of their students are publicly funded, but they've never been subject to an accountability system in Maine.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Rachelle Tome

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Skowhegan Area High School science teachers Scott Pillsbury, Barbara Toner and Stephani Sawyer-Main prepare curriculum for the new school year recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming


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