May 2, 2013

'I want the good schools to be rewarded,' says LePage

Majority of schools receive a C in new state grading system

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- The LePage administration unveiled a sweeping new statewide grading system for public schools, a hallmark of the governor's education reform efforts, that immediately drew sharp criticism Wednesday from educators who say it stigmatizes poor schools with a failing grade.

The A-to-F grading system is also drawing support from those who say the grades are a way to give parents a gauge of how well their child's school is performing.

Statewide, the majority of high schools and elementary schools received a C grade. For elementary schools, only 12 percent got A's, and 13 percent got B's. For high schools, only 10 schools, or 8 percent, got A's; and 20 schools, or 16 percent, got B's.

In central Maine school districts, 62 percent of schools received a C.

Grades were generally lower in Somerset County than in Kennebec County. No Kennebec school received an F, but Somerset schools with an F included Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, Upper Kennebec Valley High School in Bingham and Somerset Valley Middle School and Somerset Valley Middle School in Hartland. Three schools in Thorndike-based RSU 3 received F's.

The only Augusta-area school to receive an F was Whitefield Elementary.

A handful of local schools received A's, including Fayette Central School and Augusta's Hussey Elementary, both of which earned scores that put them in the top five among elementary and middle schools in Maine.

At a news conference at the Maine State Library, Gov. Paul LePage said the grades would make schools accountable. He was surrounded at the news conference by about a dozen Maine students, as well as several international students who LePage said are enrolled in schools around Bangor and Ellsworth.

"We grade all our children, and now all we're doing is taking data that is in the filing cabinets and putting it out so parents, teachers, administrators, anyone and everyone interested in the schools, in a school system in Maine, to see how they're doing," LePage said.

"I want the good schools to be rewarded, and those that aren't doing as well, we want to be able to help them. It's for our kids," he said. "We need to put our kids first. ... These kids are our future for our state, country and the world."

Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, criticized the methodology, which he says gives failing grades to schools with the highest number of students on free and reduced-price lunch programs.

The MEA noted that statewide, the high schools that received an A had an average of 9 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, while the schools that received F's had an average of 61 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch. Of the elementary schools, those that received an F grade had an average of 67 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch; while in schools receiving A's, the was 25 percent.

In addition to proficiency rates, the report card incorporates measures of student progress, which are theoretically fairer to schools with disadvantaged students. However, high schools' growth scores were just as strongly correlated with rates of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch as the proficiency scores were.

The relationship between scores and student demographics was weaker for elementary and middle schools, especially for their growth scores.

Walker said the grading system also will affect the overall community.

"If you have a system with F's, you're going to create a system where businesses, Realtors, parents lose faith in the community because the snapshot is incomplete," he said. "There are lots of great things going on at these schools that they mentioned, but they got an F."

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