August 26, 2013

A-F ratings for schools lack incentives, influence

Without assistance or funding from the state, the report-card grading system has had minimal impact, Maine’s education leaders say.

By SUSAN McMILLAN Kennebec Journal

State education officials and Gov. Paul LePage wanted a new A-F rating system of Maine public schools to spur change and improvement, but local school leaders say its influence so far has been small or nonexistent because it lacks funding, rewards, penalties and significant assistance.

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Heather Perry is superintendent of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, which had several schools with low grades. "We already had plans in place to improve those achievement results, and we're not deviating from those plans," she said.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

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School leaders say the controversial report cards didn't tell them anything they didn't already know and that they've received little help from the state since the grades were released May 1. Legislation that was supposed to expand school improvement efforts failed in the spring.

As Maine schools prepare to reopen to students this week and next, many will continue with plans they'd already made to try to improve student achievement.

At several schools, the grades aren't a factor at all in those plans.

"We feel very strongly that we already knew our weaknesses; the grades were not news to us," said Heather Perry, superintendent of Unity-based Regional School Unit 3, which had several schools with low grades. "We already had plans in place to improve those achievement results, and we're not deviating from those plans. The grades really didn't do anything other than distract parents and others politically that this was some huge change in the system, when it wasn't."

The state's A-F report cards for schools are supposed to get the public more involved in education and direct support for school improvement to the places where it's needed most. But there are no practical consequences of the grading system, and some school officials, parents and real estate agents say it also hasn't started the sorts of conversations about education that were intended.

Marcia Buker Elementary in Richmond received a C, and parent-teacher group president Samantha Johnston said people there talked about the grading system not accurately reflecting the school and state cuts to education funding.

"As far as getting a conversation started, it definitely did that, it definitely got people talking, but nothing with any sort of positive connotation," Johnston said. "Here's the problem, but what's the solution?"

The Department of Education has called and met with officials at schools that received a D or an F, and department officials believe the grades have created a new urgency around school improvement among school boards, administrators and educators.

"I'm encouraged by the calls we've gotten and the change in attention to the data," Chief Academic Officer Rachelle Tome said. "I think we're going to see some exciting things happen this year, I really do."

This year, Biddeford Middle School is adding a block of time for customized instruction and enrichment -- something Principal Charles Lomonte said the school probably would have done anyway, but the D grade and data gave it an extra push because they confirmed problems with the progress of underperforming students.

"It helped us ask the right questions," he said. "I think time will tell whether the process works."

Statewide, the most common grade was a C. Among elementary and middle schools, there were 42 A's, 52 B's, 215 C's, 53 D's and 49 F's. There were 40 A-rated high schools, 22 B's, 66 C's, 15 D's and 18 F's.

NO MONEY FOR IMPROVEMENT

At least two studies of Florida's A-F grading system, which was a model for Maine's, have shown that staff at F schools responded by making changes that improved student performance. Stigma is a consequence for low-rated schools, the reports say, but what schools really responded to was a provision that gave school choice to students at schools with repeated F grades.

There's nothing like that in Maine's grading system. A low grade does not create any new requirements for a school, nor for the Department of Education in support of a low-rated school.

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