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September 1, 2013

OUR OPINION: Maine schools need real help, not faulty grades

The A-F school grading system unveiled in May by Gov. Paul LePage is meant to identify underperforming schools and hold them accountable for improvement.

The formula used by the state, however, tells very little of value about schools, and more than three months on, educators say the program has merely highlighted problems they already knew existed while failing to provide sufficient help to fix them. In some cases, it has unfairly branded schools as inferior. Mostly, the grading system has had little impact beyond the initial shock and confusion for schools that did poorly.

Public schools should be held to high standards. A simplistic rating system based on a few, questionable data points, however, does a disservice to everything that goes into a successful school. Worse, it misallocates precious resources and gets in the way of real improvement.

The A-F grades should be scrapped. The state should explore a more comprehensive evaluation system, with the input of local school leaders, who the Maine Education Association said weren't consulted the first time around. Educators now have the advantage of seeing how the grades affected efforts on the ground.

More importantly, struggling schools have to be supported in the work of raising achievement. For the state, this means finding out why successful schools are successful, and matching them up with not-so-successful districts with similar demographics. And it means finding money for actions that come as a result of those conversations.

INEFFECTIVE EQUATION

The state's grading system factors in standardized test scores in reading and math, as well as individual improvement in those subjects. For high schools, graduation rates are considered, while for grades 3-8, improvement in math and reading for the bottom 25 percent of students is part of the equation.

Schools where less than 90 percent of students take state assessments, such as the SAT in high school, receive an automatic F, while those below 95 percent are docked a grade level.

In general, affluent school districts performed well in the first grading report, while poorer districts received low marks. That came as no surprise, since the link between standardized test scores and income levels is well established. It also provided no guidance or insight to school districts already well aware of their test scores.

"We feel very strongly that we already knew our weaknesses; the grades were not news to us," Heather Perry, superintendent of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, told the newspaper last week. "The grades didn't really do anything other than distract parents and others politically that this was some huge change in the system, when it wasn't."

In a number of cases, schools received low marks because of scoring system quirks. High schools in Gardiner and Skowhegan were knocked from Cs to Ds after slightly missing the test participation threshold, the latter by 1 percent and the former by even less. The grade of a D labels a school as "underperforming" and draws a meeting from the state Department of Education.

The state should center its attention and resources on truly underperforming schools, not those that received that designation because a few kids didn't show up for the SAT, a test that is not compulsory.

Not that the state conversations amounted to much. Funding to implement programs or provide instructional support was non-existent. LePage had included $3 million in the latest two-year budget for an Office of School Accountability within the education department. The Democrat-controlled Legislature removed that funding, citing the lack of a detailed plan for how the money would be used. Regardless, $3 million wouldn't have gone very far, considering 68 schools received Ds and 67 Fs.

The LePage administration also wanted to provide assistance through L.D. 1510, which would have allowed the education commissioner to determine schools in need of improvement, and allow school choice in cases where a prescribed improvement plan was not followed. It was rightly rejected in committee by Democrats who feared the flawed A-F system would be used as the standard.

SOLUTIONS

The grading system may not have much of a future. It was created by the governor's office, not enacted by law. LePage's two mainstream opponents for the Blaine House in 2014, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler, have criticized the program and both said they would end it.

A grading system of some kind, however, could work. The governor is correct that an A-F system is easy to understand. After LePage's plan was unveiled, the Democrats offered their own, one that includes factors such as peer comparisons and rates of free and reduced-price lunch. A system also could grade on a series of subjects individually -- science, history, arts and language, for instance, in addition to reading and math -- to provide a more complete view of the school.

For the most part, schools are aware of where they fall short. The state should give schools the tools necessary to make improvements. The Department of Education did start this effort, in the form of webinars presented in June on topics such as the practices of low-income but high-performing schools, although the department was unable to say how many schools took advantage of the series. A spokeswoman also said the department spent the summer speaking with school officials about how to support improvement.

That work should have been done instead of the hasty and unfunded implementation of an ineffective grading system. The department should crunch the hard data so that educators at schools falling behind in one area or another can connect with their counterparts at schools doing those things well. The department should foster a culture of cooperation that celebrates successful programs, and shows how they can be duplicated. When necessary, the state should fund targeted professional development.

A lot of the responsibility falls locally, too, where accountability for performance, dedication and innovation has to run from school boards to administrators to teachers and staff.

There is no doubt that too many Maine schools fall short in some way. Those schools need help addressing those faults with full consideration of the challenges they face, not criticism based on factors largely out of their control.





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