August 28, 2013

Maine report-card grading system may not last

Because it's not written into law, the A-F system could be vulnerable if either Mike Michaud or Eliot Cutler defeats Paul LePage in Maine's gubernatorial race.

By SUSAN MCMILLAN Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage's two major opponents in the 2014 governor's race say they would nix the A-F school grading system if they are elected, casting doubt on the future of the program if LePage doesn't return to office.

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Education commissioner Tony Bennett announces his resignation at a news conference on Thursday, August 1, 2013, in Tallahassee, Fla. Bennett came under heavy scrutiny for the way he used the A-F grading system in both Indiana and Florida. Maine based its system on Bennett's ideas. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

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Gov. Paul LePage implemented the grading system without a state law to go along with it, so it could be discontinued at any time once the governor leaves office. Is there enough support for the system in Maine to continue it even if he leaves political office?

From the start, the report card system unveiled in May provoked backlash from educators, Democratic legislators and many parents, who said the grades were an unfair and incomplete depiction of school quality. That sentiment is shared by Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, who both say they will run for governor next year.

In an emailed statement, Michaud said the system is deeply flawed and undermines public schools.

"Like most people, I think it's extremely important to hold schools accountable, but we need a better approach that includes parents, teachers and administrators," Michaud said.

Cutler, who finished a close second to LePage in 2010, said that instead of school quality, the grades represent inequities in resources across the state, both in students' homes and in the system of state aid for schools.

"It's not clear to me where the A-F grading takes us," Cutler said. "It tells us something we already know, and that is that our funding formula in Maine and our distribution of resources in Maine is problematic."

When the grades were first released, staff at the Department of Education had to "hunker down" and ride out the criticism for a couple of weeks after the grades were released, but since then they've seen acceptance of the system, spokeswoman Samantha Warren said in July.

"Very quickly the conversation shifted from, 'Should they be doing these grades?' to 'What do we include in these grades?' to 'What do we do about these grades?'" she said. "Now schools are in a position to engage with us in a conversation about what this was all about."

Questions raised nationally

On the national scene, however, a new round of debate has erupted about the validity and usefulness of A-F grading for schools, which could affect the drive to implement it in more states. And without a place in statute or federally mandated reporting, Maine's system could be vulnerable to changes in the political environment in Augusta.

There are 15 states with A-F grading for schools, with Maine as one of four states to join the trend just in the last year. Maine's system is far less entrenched than the others, and not just because of its newness.

In most states, the systems were adopted through legislation, but Maine's is an initiative of the LePage administration. There's nothing in statute to require the Department of Education to calculate and publish grades if the next governor decides against it.

In addition, at least half of the states with letter grades incorporated them into the plans that have freed them from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind act. To comply with the terms of the waivers, those states must continue to apply letter grades to schools.

By contrast, the waiver that the U.S. Department of Education recently approved for Maine is based on a different school rating system, with labels such as "priority," "focus" and "meeting."

Maine Department of Education officials have said they will continue to use A-F because it's clearer for the public, but there's nothing in Maine's waiver that requires the state to use the letter grades.

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