August 28, 2013

School report card grading system subject to political winds

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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Florida education commissioner Tony Bennett announces his resignation at a news conference on Aug. 1 in Tallahassee, Fla. Bennett resigned amid allegations that he changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job as Indiana's school chief.

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THE SERIES

PART 1

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?

TODAY

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?

Rachelle Tome, the state's chief academic officer, said being in statute wouldn't necessarily protect the A-F system because a future Legislature could always repeal it.

"Does the state want its own accountability? Do we want some level of understanding of how our schools are doing?" Tome said. "I think those are the questions."

The first attempt to create a rating system in state law failed. Shortly after the release of the report cards, Democrats introduced L.D. 1540 to create a task force to design a school rating system that would incorporate more years of student assessment data, college enrollment rates, interviews with parents and comparisons within regional and economic peer groups.

The bill was approved by majorities in the Legislature, but not the two-thirds majorities it required as emergency legislation, or that would have been necessary to override a likely veto by LePage.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, said she still views the A-F system as inherently flawed, but she's not inclined to submit a similar bill in the next regular session because it would probably suffer the same fate.

"I don't expect that people's positions have changed," said Millett, the Senate chairwoman of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. "We want to be careful how we spend our time and make sure it's worth our effort."

Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, however, said he expects more legislative action on school grades, both in opposition and in support.

"I think moving forward you're probably going to see some legislation to stop what's there," he said. "I think you're going to see some legislation to make it part of statute."

Pouliot, also a member of the education committee, said he supports A-F grading, but he wants the system to recognize the challenges faced by schools with low-income populations and to provide more support to those schools.

The letter grades, like the standardized test scores weighted heavily in the grading formula, are strongly correlated with schools' economic profiles.

A different approach

Some school leaders aren't necessarily opposed to A-F grading, but want it to be recalibrated with input from educators. Greg Potter, superintendent of Newport-based Regional School Unit 19, said the development of the system seemed rushed, when it should have happened deliberately and with the involvement of the Legislature.

Potter said state officials should convene a group that includes administrators, teachers and community leaders to discuss the grades.

"I just think more work could be done in getting folks together and discussing how this is impacting schools and how meaningful the data is and how effectively the schools can use the data," he said. "It seems like that would be the next step for the state."

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said she'd want to do away with A-F grading altogether. The teachers union could potentially support grading school performance if the measures went beyond the standardized test results and graduation rates now fed into the formula, Kilby-Chesley said — measures that give a more complete picture of individual schools.

"Although the state may have dubbed some of the schools Fs, they are in fact highly functioning schools, and I think a lot of teachers were highly offended by the grading system and how it was used," Kilby-Chesley said. "Now, of course, we can see in other states how the grading system has not worked very well."

Kilby-Chesley was referring to the scandal surrounding Tony Bennett, who stepped down as Florida's education commissioner on Aug. 1 after the Associated Press reported that when Bennett was Indiana's state superintendent, he quietly changed Indiana's A-F formula last year.

The change ensured that a charter school run by one of Bennett's most prominent campaign donors received an A rather than a C. It also boosted grades for 165 other schools, according to an analysis by a public broadcasting outlet in Indiana.

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Rachelle Tome

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

  


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