May 14, 2013

Two Portland schools, two miles apart, far different grades

One receives an A, the other an F using test scores as criteria, exposing the system's flaws, critics say.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Sarah Thompson and her husband, John, put two daughters through Portland elementary schools.

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Students head home for the day from the Hall School in Portland on Friday.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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One went to Fred P. Hall. The other went to Longfellow.

As far as Sarah Thompson is concerned, neither child got a better education than the other.

That's why she was surprised and frustrated when state officials issued grades for Maine's public schools on May 1, including an A for Longfellow and an F for Hall.

Those vastly different grades, for two schools less than two miles apart, highlight the simplicity and pitfalls of the state's new letter-grade system for public schools.

"I don't understand that. They are both great schools," said Thompson, a member of Portland's school board. "The teachers are no less dedicated and the parents are no less involved at one or the other."

The schools' grades were based in part on one day of standardized testing. By many other measures, Hall and Longfellow look almost identical: The buildings are about the same age, the student-teacher ratios are virtually the same, the average teacher age is comparable, and the average experience per teacher is close.

The average teacher's annual salary at Hall, $62,849, is actually about $5,000 more than the average at Longfellow, and more of Hall's teachers have master's degrees. On paper, teachers at Hall are slightly more qualified.

There are two notable differences between the schools: At Hall, twice as many students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and more than six times as many are classified as English language learners, meaning English is not their first language.

No one should blame low-income students or English language learners for the school's score, Thompson said, but to overlook the challenges that some of the students face would be ludicrous. Blaming teachers and schools is even more alarming, she said.

The state's grades shouldn't be a problem, she said, but "perception is reality for a lot of people. They are going to believe these grades if they don't hear otherwise."

School board member Justin Costa said he thinks the letter grades are punitive and counter-productive. "I understand that there is a whole group of people who want to see education become more data-driven and accountable, but this is not a valid model," he said. "And instead of bringing together people to improve education, (the state) is putting educators and schools and parents on the defensive and creating animosity."

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the reaction to the grades has been mixed, but he's glad that people in communities statewide are talking about education.

"We don't want the grades to just sit there for a year," he said. "We want to see what we can learn from them."

A CLOSER LOOK

In the new grading system, elementary schools were compared through the latest New England Comprehensive Assessment Program scores for reading and math. The system also considered growth over the previous year at each school in each subject.

With that formula, Longfellow received 306.8 points and Hall got 192.3 points, which translated to an A and an F, respectively.

Portland school officials denied a request by the Portland Press Herald to spend time inside the two schools to look at possible differences in teaching and learning. Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said he did not want to pit schools against each other.

When the grades were announced, however, Caulk released a statement that urged parents and teachers not to put too much stock in them.

"In the Portland Public Schools, we do not assess a student's year-long performance based on a single test, as we know it is not an accurate reflection of learning," he said. "Similarly, we do not judge the quality of our schools on a single measure and instead review a range of assessment and data analysis to develop plans for success at all schools."

(Continued on page 2)

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Students exit Longfellow Elementary School at the end of the school day on Friday afternoon in Portland.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

  


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