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April 27, 2013

Gov. Paul LePage

Maine public schools to be assigned letter grades

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

PORTLAND – Instead of handing out report cards, school officials will get grades themselves next week, as the state Department of Education announces A-through-F grades for Maine's 600 public schools.

The first report card has yet to land, but the plan was already drawing criticism Friday from Democratic legislative leaders and school officials.

"Of course we want every school to be the best school it can be, but it appears the governor wants nothing more than to affix an arbitrary letter grade onto our schools to shame them," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

Superintendents will get their schools' grades Monday, and the statewide database will be posted Wednesday on the state Department of Education's website.

The letter-grade plan is the latest education initiative of Gov. Paul LePage, who has been sharply critical of public schools and has clashed with school unions. He announced the plan in his State of the State address in February.

Since LePage took office in January 2011, the state has opened charter schools and launched a teacher evaluation plan. LePage has unsuccessfully proposed school choice and diversion of public funds for religious schools.

His administration has been criticized for adopting reform measures borrowed from the state of Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education think tank and other conservative education reformers who advocate changes that include teacher evaluations, school grading systems, voucher programs and charter schools.

Critics say such efforts take resources from the public school system, further burden schools and teachers with new requirements and unfairly allocate public funds.

The grading system is one more example of that, Alfond said Friday.

"This administration seems to be fixated on the Florida school system and whatever the state of Florida does. This administration seems to think it's the best thing to do," Alfond said.

More than a dozen states use similar grading systems. Maine's system is based largely on Florida's, including the formula for the grades.

In general, the grades are based on standardized test scores in math and English, students' growth and progress, and the performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students.

For high schools, graduation rates are also factors.

None of the factors is new, and details on how the state will use the information to reach specific grades will be available on the department's website, along with the testing data for each school.

The grades will be updated once a year, likely in the spring, for the next two years, and be used for all public schools, including charter schools and the state's 11 town academies. They will not be used to rate private schools or career and technical schools.

Education leaders say letter grades are too simplistic for measuring a school's success.

"I question whether grading a school a "D" or an "F" is the right tool for encouragement or improvement," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, Senate chairwoman of the Legislature's Education Committee. "It seems like a lot of resources and effort went into the grading system and not into the actual improvement process."

The administration understands that concern, said education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

"We know the grade doesn't tell the story of a whole school, but we think there is value in it," he said. "The whole point of it is to give parents and communities a snapshot of where their school is at."

Alfond and Millett said they worry about the immediate impact on communities.

"What happens next week when a school finds out it's an 'F?' What happens to property values?" Millett said. "And if you are trying to sell a home and your community was given an F? Good luck."

Connerty-Marin said many real estate companies and outside groups already rate schools and assign them grades.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said her organization opposes the new system.

"I think it's a punitive approach to shame schools," said Brown, who was briefed on the system's methodology this week.

Like other critics of evaluation systems based on test scores, Brown said the system doesn't account for programs such as art or music.

"Schools are not just institutions that exclusively teach reading and math. There is so much that goes into a good, quality school," she said. "I think (the letter grading) is narrow and it's rather disingenuous."

Brown took issue with some specific measurements, including one that gives a school an automatic "F" if fewer than 90 percent of its students take one of the standardized tests.

Connerty-Marin said about a dozen schools had less than 90 percent participation last year.

Brown also noted that elementary schools are graded based on a test that is taken only by third-graders and above. "That doesn't hold water," she said.

An education expert who created Arizona's first school accountability system said more and more states are adopting such grading systems. While they aren't necessarily effective at improving schools, grading systems don't cause as much turmoil as people fear, said David R. Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University who specializes in school choice and accountability.

"When (the grades) come out, just like every other dashboard indicator, it isn't going to tell the public something they don't already know about their schools," said Garcia.

Garcia said his research hasn't shown that grading systems lead students to withdraw from schools that get low grades or flock to schools with high grades.

"A-through-F grading has not generated the kind of movement and outcry people thought it would," he said.

The real problem, he said, is that the grades don't provide much new information, and they can stifle the ability of schools or states to be innovative, since the grades are based largely on standardized data.

A spokeswoman for Jeb Bush's education think tank, the Foundation for Excellence in Education in Florida, said the simplicity of the letter grade is its greatest asset.

"A to F is one of the central reforms that we believe is important. What this does is bring the pressure of accountability," said Jaryn Emhof. "Everybody knows what it means."

Connerty-Marin said he thinks the public will "love" the system. "They're not going to want it to go away." 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com





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