School report cards released Thursday by the state Department of Education drew mixed reactions from educators, who said the grades can be a morale booster for schools, or fail to take into account important factors such as the number of students who live in poverty.
A jump from a C grade to an A earned Gorham’s Narragansett Elementary School a visit from Education Commissioner Jim Rier on Thursday, while at the Hall Elementary School in Portland, where an F grade sparked a neighborhood protest last year, an improvement to a D merited only a slight muting of criticism of the two-year-old grading system.
Narragansett Principal Pauline Brann said she couldn’t point to one factor that produced a sharp increase in her students’ test scores, but said the A is a helpful morale booster and affirmation that her school for kindergarten through fifth grade is on the right track.
“It certainly got our attention,” she said, as Rier ate lunch with children, toured the school and met with teachers. Focusing resources on students, she said, “is a key piece of everything we do, from keeping the school clean to academics.”
Eunice Bentley, who leads the school’s literature and math education efforts, said teachers and aides have time to meet regularly to review how the children are doing. A cooperative atmosphere, she said, means teachers are willing to let a colleague pull a student out of class for individual tutoring in a subject in which he or she is struggling.
The Hall school in Portland seems a world away from Gorham. Many students come from a nearby housing project. The tiny office is so cramped that supplies are stacked in boxes in the hallway. Take-home forms for students are available in seven languages.
The state’s grades “don’t take into account any other factors,” like students who come to school with no experience speaking English, said Principal Cynthia Remick.
After the school got its F last year, Remick said, the Department of Education sent a staffer to talk about ways to help the school. Remick said she gave the staffer a tour of the school and the staffer took “copious notes” of her requests for more money for teacher aides, but nothing ever came of the visit.
Remick said the state’s grades are developed in a way that should make most educators cringe. An assessment based on one test isn’t likely to be valid, she said, noting that one factor in the grade is supposed to be a measure of how the bottom quarter of students are improving each year. But that doesn’t even measure the same students, she said. It compares the abilities of one year’s group of third-graders to the previous year’s.
Parents of Hall school students generally agreed with the principal.
Julie Wagner, who has two children at the school, said she plans to disregard the D the school got for its performance in 2012-13 as much as she did the F it got for 2011-12.
“There are so many factors that go into what makes a quality school and quality teachers,” she said. “I believe there is no validity in grading a school based on one test.”
“I want my kids to be empathetic, and you can’t test empathy. I want them to be kind, and you can’t test kind,” she said.
“I think it’s humiliating for the kids, the teachers and the parents,” said Cathy Kruseck, who has a fifth-grader at the school. “They have to look at that grade and think it’s an indicator of their school.”
Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the district’s grades will generate discussion, but he believes they provide only a snapshot of what is going on in Biddeford.
Biddeford High School once again received a C, while the middle school dropped from a D to an F.
“We need to be realistic about how these are scores based off of one test,” Ray said.
He described his district as one with high poverty and low funding. At least 50 percent of the students participate in the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program, a key indicator of poverty. In the past five years, the middle school has lost more than $250,000 in Title I funding because of the size of the city, resulting in the elimination of multiple reading intervention programs.
“That’s certainly not all of it, but when the needs of your students don’t change but your staffing levels change, that has an effect,” he said. “You can’t replace quality teachers in the classroom, and sometimes people pretend that we can.”
Ray said the high school’s score doesn’t reflect the progress made in its four-year graduation rate. In 2007, 76 percent of students graduated in four years; that has improved to 91 percent.
Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said the school district faces challenges that affect its grades from the state. Lewiston’s high school, middle school and Martel school received D’s. The Montello School got an F, and the Geiger and McMahon elementary schools received C’s.
Webster said his district has specific circumstances that can draw down the report card scoring.
For example, 23 percent of the students are English language learners, and half of the school’s grade is based on proficiency. Webster also noted that the high school was knocked down a full grade because of a lack of attendance for testing, despite its efforts to get every student to take the test.
“While I’m all in favor of schools being given a grade, I am concerned about the formula on these. It still more closely mirrors the socioeconomic status of the students more than anything else,” he said.
Because of those factors, schools with comparable test scores could end up with widely varying grades. For instance, the percentage of students at Lewiston High who were proficient in math and reading on the Maine High School Assessment test – 36 percent and 43 percent, respectively – nearly matched the percentage of students at Portland High who were proficient – 37 percent in math, 46 percent in reading. But Portland High got a C, compared with Lewiston High’s F.
Webster said he thinks people know and support their own schools.
“For many families, they’re committed to their local school, no matter what the grade is,” he said.