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

(Continued from page 3)

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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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THE SERIES

PART 1

Local school leaders say they haven't received much help from the state, while the state Department of Education says it is hamstrung by the Legislature, which failed to provide needed funding. Also, see what parents and real estate agents have to say about the grades.

PART 2

Nearly half of the high schools that received Ds and Fs were penalized because not enough of their students took the Maine High School Assessment. Local principals say they do everything they can to encourage students to take the test, but they can't force students to give up a Saturday.

PART 3

Some schools earned good grades and may provide direction for those that didn't fare as well. What was the key to getting a top grade?

TODAY

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?

Magee and Petrilli also emphasized the need for transparency, and Petrilli said the controversy around Bennett's actions has prompted healthy conversations about what to measure and how.

Some of the data in Maine's report cards are easy to find elsewhere, like graduation rates and the percentage of students who meet proficiency on standardized tests. But the elementary and middle school report cards also assign points for growth shown by individual students, whose results are confidential.

It's not clear yet whether what happened in Indiana will slow or reverse the momentum for A-F grading.

Jaryn Emhof, spokeswoman for the Tallahassee-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, said adoption of A-F systems may slow as states make sure their calculations are correct and are developed in a transparent way. The foundation, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is one of the primary proponents of A-F grading.

Emhof said Bennett noticed a flaw in Indiana's formula and did the right thing by fixing it, though maybe it would have been better to run it by the state board of education.

"I think what we'll probably be advocating is, take your time, don't rush, because this is really important," she said. "If it's not quite right and people don't understand it, see how quickly it becomes a big story, and it creates more confusion in the long run."

Emhof said that transparency and the potential for problems in formulas are issues for any method of rating schools, and A-F at least gets people talking about how to measure and improve school performance.

Hyslop said it would be difficult to roll back or significantly change A-F grading in most of the states that have it because of the legislation or No Child Left Behind waivers in place, but policy makers in other states might pause or rethink the design and use of school rating systems.

"My hope is that it's not used as a rationale to get rid of school accountability full stop but to really have a conversation about what the best systems are and what systems are most fair," Hyslop said. "I do think there are some merits to having a simple system, but you have to be careful that the system is totally transparent and that all conversations about calculations are held in a public manner."

Magee said he expects the debate to continue along two tracks.

"I think that in states where the state leaders really believe in the system, they're going to have to double down to make sure that they're building something that is accurate and trustworthy and does what we want it to do," Magee said. "That's going to take more work, because I think a lot of questions have been raised. Some other states that were considering it might say, 'This is more trouble than it's worth.'"

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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