AUGUSTA — When the state released report cards for schools in May, perhaps no one was more frustrated or disappointed than the leaders of schools with letter grades that made them look worse than their test scores and graduation rates say they are.

Twenty of the 122 high schools that received grades were docked a letter grade for falling short of the threshold of 95 percent participation on state standardized tests of math and reading in 2012.

Elementary and middle schools are subject to the same penalty, but all of them met the threshold. A few of the schools that were penalized were knocked from a B down to a C, but most ended up with a D or an F.

In central Maine, Gardiner Area High School, Maine Central Institute and Skowhegan Area High School earned enough points based on student achievement to earn C’s, but instead they received D’s because of test participation.

Less than 90 percent participation is an automatic F. Only Penquis Valley High School in Milo fell below that bar, but the school received an F on points, regardless of any penalty.

Participation is a new standard for most high schools in Maine. Officials at the schools that were penalized say they always try to ensure that as many of their students as possible take the SAT, which is the main part of the Maine High School Assessment, but they argue the participation rate isn’t a real indicator of educational quality.

“The fact that we were dinged a letter grade based on SAT participation I think is ludicrous,” Skowhegan Principal Rick Wilson said. “The number of kids taking the SAT is a lot different from how much your kids learn and are able to do. It’s not educationally sound.”

The 95 percent participation requirement is part of the No Child Left Behind Act and also Maine’s waiver from some provisions of the federal law. But that accountability system applies only to schools receiving money through Title I, the federal program to assist schools with large numbers of low-income students.

While about 80 percent of Maine’s elementary and middle schools are in Title I, only 20 percent of public high schools are.

The Department of Education’s performance grading system for schools is intended to expand accountability beyond Title I schools by publicizing student achievement with A-F grades, although there are no real consequences attached.

Rachelle Tome, the state’s chief academic officer, said participation rates are included in the grade calculations because they’re important. Unless all or nearly all students take a test, the scores aren’t representative of the entire school, and administrators could boost scores by limiting testing of low-performing students.

Participation is a common factor in A-F systems, although the specifics vary from state to state.

“It goes back to what’s measured is valued,” Tome said. “In some of the high schools particularly, there has not been any accountability for non-Title I schools. … There were no sanctions, there were no punitive measures or financial constrictions that were put on their district or their school. I’m sure they were looking, but (participation) wasn’t something that bubbled up as critical mass for them.”

Actually, participation does not differ significantly depending on a high school’s Title I status. Among Title I schools, 15 percent did not reach 95 percent participation, and 14 percent of non-Title I schools did not.

Fully half of the state’s town academies, however, received the penalty. The schools received grades because at least 60 percent of their students are publicly funded, but they’ve never been subject to an accountability system in Maine.

Tome hypothesized that the lack of accountability could account for the disproportionate share of town academies not meeting the participation standard.

Schools just received their SAT results and are reviewing them for accuracy. When that process is finished, Tome said she expects to see fewer schools below 95 percent participation.

“Had we had the performance grading system all along, coupled with No Child Left Behind accountability, I would wager a guess that you would see a much, much smaller number of schools not meeting the threshold,” she said.

Maine Central Institute spokeswoman Jennifer Beane said in an email that school staff members work hard every year to ensure that all juniors take the Maine High School Assessment, and this year they had 100 percent participation.

Last year was the third time since 2007 that participation on the Maine High School Assessment fell below 95 percent at Maine Central Institute, according to reports on the Department of Education website.

GRADE DROPS WHEN ONE GIRL MOVES

Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman usually clears the bar, but was penalized for having one of 14 students miss taking the SAT. The girl was moving out of the district at test time, Principal Denise Plante said. As a result, the school received an F rather than a D.

Forest Hills was one of seven high schools in 2012 that had a junior class with fewer than 20 students. At that size, one student missing the test triggers the one-letter grade penalty, while two missing it causes an automatic F.

Those small schools are likely to face that situation every year, barring a surge in enrollment. Plante said two data workers from the Department of Education told her the department may consider setting a minimum student count to protect small schools from volatility, which she would support.

Tome said department staff are gathering feedback about the report card formula, but she does not expect changes before the release of the next report cards in the spring. Changes have to be carefully considered and could reduce the year-to-year reliability of the grades.

At some high schools, including Gardiner’s and Skowhegan’s, participation is a recurring problem, falling below 95 percent several times since 2006, when Maine started using the SAT for the reading, writing and math sections of the Maine High School Assessment.

Only the reading and math sections count for participation benchmarks. Schools’ participation rates also include a small number of students with disabilities who complete the Personalized Alternate Assessment Portfolio. Most of the results come from the SAT administered on the first Saturday in May.

DAY OFF – IF YOU TAKE THE TEST

Skowhegan Area High School allows students to take a day off the Monday after junior prom in exchange for coming in that Saturday, but that only goes so far, Principal Wilson said.

“The kids who aren’t in school, we call them, we offer taxi service, we’ll do whatever we can,” he said. “But I can’t make someone come into this building and take that test.”

Gardiner Area High School has implemented its own strategies in the past four years to entice students to come in that Saturday, like providing a free breakfast that Principal Chad Kempton helps serve and an early release day the following school year if the class reaches 95 percent participation.

In spite of those efforts, the school had 94.5 percent participation in 2012 and received a D on its report card rather than a C.

Students who miss the main testing day can take a make-up test during school, but both Wilson and Kempton said some students simply refuse, and they have little leverage in that situation.

They said they’ve tried to communicate to parents and students how important the test is to their schools, but that doesn’t necessarily convince the students to care.

“For those kids that are moving on to a four-year college that has the SAT as part of their acceptance requirements, it’s a free shot at getting a good score, but for the kids that are going to the military or community college, it’s a lot less important,” Kempton said. “What’s the incentive for them to take a three-and-a-half-hour assessment on a Saturday?”

Some states require students to pass a standardized test before being allowed to graduate, which could potentially boost participation. But Wilson said students skipping the SAT may not be on track to graduate anyway, and Kempton said that wouldn’t be good education policy.

“We, just like every school in central Maine, have a variety of kids coming through our doors,” Kempton said. “I really value the day-to-day interactions that the kids have with their teachers throughout the course of their four years versus one assessment.”

Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com