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

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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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Michelle Renee, with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said she's not familiar with Maine's letter-grade system, but she has seen other states adopt similar models.

"The idea is intrinsically good, I think, but where it goes empirically backwards is when you rely on standardized tests," she said. "Many states, in fact, are moving away from standardized tests altogether."

Longellow Principal Dawn Carrigan and Hall Principal Cynthia Remick said they are proud of their teachers and schools, but are concerned about the impact of the state's comparison of schools so close to one another.

Carrigan said her staff in no way celebrated its A. It's hard to feel good about the grade, she said, when other schools were at the opposite end of the scale.

Remick said she and her staff have been heartened by strong public support since the grades were announced, but she, too, is worried about perception becoming reality.

The worst part, Remick said, has been students talking about their school's failing grade. She said they felt responsible.

One factor that the state did not take into account was an electrical fire at Hall in September that forced the school to close for a week. Students took a standardized test -- the test that would form the basis of their failing grade -- the next week.

State officials have acknowledged that the grading system is simplistic, but said that is deliberate. Bowen said the grades were designed to grab attention.

In addition to releasing the letter grades, the Maine Department of Education created a "data warehouse" on its website with the hope that visitors will delve into the reasons that schools got the grades they did.

The problem with that, Costa said, is that most parents probably won't take the time to examine that level of detail.

David Silvernail, director of the Center for Educational Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, said the grading system would be much fairer if it considered socioeconomic factors.

Bowen said his staff considered doing that, but worried about creating two sets of standards.

"We don't want to tell schools that have a high percentage of low-income students that they should be adjusted because they can't do as well as other schools," he said.

Gov. Paul LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor does not believe that income barriers define destiny. She noted that nearly two dozen schools where more than 50 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunch received A's and B's.

"Poverty does not equate to failure, and we hope these grades and the data website will lead to healthy conversations about how these high-poverty schools are achieving great results," Bennett said.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS?

Parents of Hall students have disputed the notion that the school is failing, but said they are concerned about what an F will mean in the long term.

Shannon Doughty, the mother of a fourth-grader and a first-grader at Hall, said she thinks the state is effectively penalizing schools for their diversity. "I've been extremely happy with the school," she said.

Sean Kelsey, who also has two children at Hall, said he worries about the grade's effect on teachers. "I can't believe it won't affect the morale of teachers, who are already dealing with budget cuts," he said.

Parents of Longellow students were glad that their school did well, but were sympathetic to the parents and teachers at Hall and other Portland schools, such as East End Community School, that didn't fare as well. East End also got an F.

Marnie Morrione, who has a fifth-grader at Longfellow and a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School who attended Longfellow, said the only differences she sees are demographic.

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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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