February 6, 2013

A-F school grading system faces criticism

LePage's proposal seen as 'overly simplistic' by Democrats

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage's proposal to set up an A-to-F grading system to rank Maine schools was criticized by Democratic leadership as "overly simplistic" and not effective in helping improve schools.

"He has introduced what I think is a very contentious, very undetailed plan. I think it's going to be a distraction," Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday.

LePage made the announcement in his State of the State address Tuesday night, saying he was directing Education Commissioner Steve Bowen to set up the system.

More details about the plan emerged Wednesday.

A school's grade would be based on several factors, including test scores, graduation rates and improvement in scores year-over-year. The commissioner is currently working on how to combine and weigh those elements to come up with a single letter grade, spokesman David Connerty-Marin said.

"I think it helps parents and communities know how their schools are doing," Connerty-Marin said, calling a single grade a "good overview" of the school.

Patrick Phillips, superintendent of RSU 23, which includes Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach, said the grading system was too simplistic an idea.

"I don't think those kind of simplistic, holistic evaluations of a school make much sense," he said. "I think it gives a false sense that we can actually say everything that needs to be said about a school in a single letter."

Phillips also expressed frustration with the governor pushing for higher expectations while at the same time cutting funding. He said the RSU may have to cut 10 percent to 15 percent of its teachers if the governor's budget is passed.

The letter-grade plan is the latest education initiative launched by LePage, who has been sharply critical of public schools and clashed mightily with school unions. Since he took office, the state has opened to charter schools and launched a teacher evaluation plan. He also unsuccessfully has proposed school choice efforts and diverting public funds for religious schools.

Several members of the Legislature's Education Committee, including Republicans, had questions about how the grading system would work and whether it would help improve schools.

"It's a very simplistic way of looking at our schools," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, the committee's Senate co-chairwoman.

"The governor said he was passionate about education, and that's great. So are we, but we have concerns about the ways he's thinking about implementing education policy," Millett said.

The grading system could be in place as soon as this fall, and would be used for all public schools, including charter schools. It would not be used to rate private schools or career and technical schools. It remained unclear whether town academies would be included, Connerty-Marin said.

"I'd like to hear more about it. I think we're Americans and we like to grade things," said Rep. Mike McClellan, R-Raymond, adding that it's a challenge to rank schools because of the subjective nature of quantifying the quality of work from a student, teacher or administrator, compared to test scores, for instance.

"If it's something to improve and support students and schools, then I'm for it all the way," McClellan said, "but it's complicated."

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock, said a letter grade on a school would have a ripple effect, particularly because residents and businesses looking to relocate consider the quality of local schools when making a decision.

"It opens up a discussion because when someone is going to come move to Maine, the schools are one of the things they are looking at," Langley said. "How do we currently answer that question?"

Many real estate companies and outside groups like to rate schools, or put a letter grade on a school, but people are unclear about how they get their results, Connerty-Marin said. That uncertainly is one of the reasons the administration wants its own ranked system.

However, a grade could just serve to shame a school or the students in it, said Rob Walker, the executive director of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers.

"We know where the problems are and we should focus on improving schools," Walker said. "We shouldn't rely on the latest gimmick to further stigmatize our kids."

Maine School Management Association Director Connie Brown criticized the plan and questioned the point of assigning a grade.

"Is this to embarrass the schools?" she asked. "I don't see any good coming out of this, and I don't see how this is going to help schools."

Alfond noted that independent agencies such as Educate Maine, a business-backed organization that partners with educators to address the job skills gap, already had begun assessing school performance.

"Maybe the governor isn't aware of that; I don't know," he said, adding that independent evaluation may be more effective than having the governor or the education commissioner do it.

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