April 27, 2013

Maine public schools to be assigned letter grades

Democratic legislators, school officials cry foul over Gov. Paul LePage's education initiative.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Instead of handing out report cards, school officials will get grades themselves next week, as the state Department of Education announces A-through-F grades for Maine's 600 public schools.

The first report card has yet to land, but the plan was already drawing criticism Friday from Democratic legislative leaders and school officials.

"Of course we want every school to be the best school it can be, but it appears the governor wants nothing more than to affix an arbitrary letter grade onto our schools to shame them," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

Superintendents will get their schools' grades Monday, and the statewide database will be posted Wednesday on the state Department of Education's website.

The letter-grade plan is the latest education initiative of Gov. Paul LePage, who has been sharply critical of public schools and has clashed with school unions. He announced the plan in his State of the State address in February.

Since LePage took office in January 2011, the state has opened charter schools and launched a teacher evaluation plan. LePage has unsuccessfully proposed school choice and diversion of public funds for religious schools.

His administration has been criticized for adopting reform measures borrowed from the state of Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education think tank and other conservative education reformers who advocate changes that include teacher evaluations, school grading systems, voucher programs and charter schools.

Critics say such efforts take resources from the public school system, further burden schools and teachers with new requirements and unfairly allocate public funds.

The grading system is one more example of that, Alfond said Friday.

"This administration seems to be fixated on the Florida school system and whatever the state of Florida does. This administration seems to think it's the best thing to do," Alfond said.

More than a dozen states use similar grading systems. Maine's system is based largely on Florida's, including the formula for the grades.

In general, the grades are based on standardized test scores in math and English, students' growth and progress, and the performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students.

For high schools, graduation rates are also factors.

None of the factors is new, and details on how the state will use the information to reach specific grades will be available on the department's website, along with the testing data for each school.

The grades will be updated once a year, likely in the spring, for the next two years, and be used for all public schools, including charter schools and the state's 11 town academies. They will not be used to rate private schools or career and technical schools.

Education leaders say letter grades are too simplistic for measuring a school's success.

"I question whether grading a school a "D" or an "F" is the right tool for encouragement or improvement," said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, Senate chairwoman of the Legislature's Education Committee. "It seems like a lot of resources and effort went into the grading system and not into the actual improvement process."

The administration understands that concern, said education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

"We know the grade doesn't tell the story of a whole school, but we think there is value in it," he said. "The whole point of it is to give parents and communities a snapshot of where their school is at."

Alfond and Millett said they worry about the immediate impact on communities.

"What happens next week when a school finds out it's an 'F?' What happens to property values?" Millett said. "And if you are trying to sell a home and your community was given an F? Good luck."

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