August 26, 2013

Percentage of students tested key to Maine's school grading system

The state's new A-F report card for schools gives too much weight to test participation, some educators say.

By SUSAN McMILLAN Kennebec Journal

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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