August 28, 2013

School report card grading system subject to political winds

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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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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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?

Even before the controversy arose in Indiana, both supporters and critics of Florida's A-F system were questioning its validity after it was adjusted at Bennett's recommendation to blunt the impact of tougher standards on school grades.

While in Indiana, Bennett led the charge for A-F grading and other reforms similar to ones LePage has pushed, and Bennett headlined LePage's education conference at Cony High School in March.

After Bennett's resignation, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen released a statement calling Bennett a "trailblazing education leader" and reaffirming his support for the types of reforms Bennett advocated.

Bowen is resigning to become director of innovation for the Council of Chief State School Officers, an association of state education commissioners. His last day is Sept. 12.

Supporters of school accountability ratings said the allegations in Indiana have raised questions about transparency, consequences attached to school ratings and possible over-simplification in A-F systems.

Carrots and sticks?

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, said letter grades are the best ratings for schools because they're easy to understand, but the simplicity can also be a problem.

Single letter grades usually result from complicated, behind-the-scenes formulas, Petrilli said, and can obscure strengths and weaknesses within a school. Petrilli would prefer that schools receive separate grades for things like reading and math, or for the progress of low-performing students and high-performing students.

"I think parents could probably handle a handful of letter grades for schools," he said. "We don't get a student report card and expect to see only one grade. We see five or six grades on there, one for each subject."

Marc Porter Magee, president and founder of the New York-based education reform organization 50CAN, said letter grades are a good idea, but they're still in the experimental phase and sometimes seem to emerge from a black box.

"Translating that good idea into an actual system that's trustworthy and that is accurate has proven to be really complicated," he said. "And that's not to say it's not possible, it's just that a lot of states have struggled to make those work, and at the same time they've attached consequences."

In many states, school ratings come with carrots or sticks in the form of funding, bonuses or school autonomy. In some cases, schools with multiple years of bad grades are subject to turnaround efforts that can involve increased state oversight or the mandatory replacement of staff.

None of those things are a part of Maine's A-F system, which Magee said may be good.

Transparency is key

Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst with the New America Foundation in Washington, also said it may be better to use school grades just for reporting information, rather than attaching consequences. But the reporting has to be clear about what's being measured and how it's calculated.

"Without that sort of public trust in the system as valid and fair, it undermines the whole notion of school accountability to begin with," Hyslop said.

Magee and Petrilli also emphasized the need for transparency, and Petrilli said the controversy around Bennett's actions has prompted healthy conversations about what to measure and how.

Some of the data in Maine's report cards are easy to find elsewhere, like graduation rates and the percentage of students who meet proficiency on standardized tests. But the elementary and middle school report cards also assign points for growth shown by individual students, whose results are confidential.

It's not clear yet whether what happened in Indiana will slow or reverse the momentum for A-F grading.

Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for the Tallahassee-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, said adoption of A-F systems may slow as states make sure their calculations are correct and are developed in a transparent way. The foundation, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is one of the primary proponents of A-F grading.

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