April 27, 2013

Mike Tipping: LePage's school grading system meant to punish poor towns

It's a sure bet that the A-F rankings, based largely on test scores, will favor schools in wealthy areas.

Last week, thanks to a leaked recording, we learned that Gov. Paul LePage said in a speech to the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce: "If you think I've caused trouble lately, you wait in the next couple weeks when the grades on all the schools come out."

Now, thanks to a leaked website, we know why LePage's school grading plan is going to cause so much trouble.

According to a letter sent by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to Maine superintendents, the department has set up a website that explains the methodology of its ranking scheme in more detail than has previously been available. The website is hidden and meant only for superintendents, but is accessible if you know the right URL: http://maine.gov/doe/mspgs/

The methodological description posted on the site shows that LePage's soon-to-be-released A-F school grades will be based almost entirely on standardized test scores in just two subjects: math and reading.

There are a number of problems with this approach, but first and foremost is the fact that this system will almost certainly mean that schools in wealthy towns serving wealthy students will be rated highly and schools in poorer towns with poorer students will be receiving the failing grades.

Mountains of research have shown a close link between poverty and low performance on standardized tests. One study from Washington State University found that 80 percent of the variance in college entrance examinations can be explained by parental income levels.

There are a number of reasons why wealthier students do better, including increased parental attention, more educational resources at home and even access to proper nutrition.

A study conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that if families living below the poverty line saw an increase in income, their children's school performance radically increased.

This effect is compounded by factors that could cause school districts with wealthier residents to have higher overall averages, such as increased parental involvement in school operations, increased community value placed on learning and greater property tax bases to fund local education.

There will no doubt be some outliers in the grades that the LePage administration announces, as there are in almost any large dataset, and there other factors that will have small effects, but the main thing the results will likely show is that schools in wealthy areas have higher average standardized test scores than those in poor areas.

In fact, this is exactly what has happened in other jurisdictions, like Florida, where similar rating systems have been attempted.

So why would the LePage administration engage in this kind of ranking if we already know what it's going to show? The answer is that they see a political advantage in dividing schools into winners and losers, successes and failures. That's also the reason for the arbitrary A-F grades.

If LePage and Bowen can pit schools against each other and claim a certain number that fall below an arbitrary line are failures, they can use the controversy they've created to bolster their attacks on teachers, towns and local control. They can push for more public money to go to private charter schools, and they can attempt to centralize more school management away from local school boards, superintendents and teachers.

They also want to take attention away from the real threats to school and student performance. Since poverty is one of the biggest factors in low student success rates, perhaps LePage's slashing of jobless assistance and health care programs for the poor isn't the best idea.

It may also distract people from focusing on LePage's budget, which would eliminate revenue sharing to Maine towns, forcing education cuts and property tax increases in every corner of the state.

And what happens if schools want to improve their grades under LePage's rubric? They'll have to focus solely on increasing reading and math standardized test scores. The governor's plan gives no credit to science, art and technical education, much less extracurricular offerings, and teachers will be incentivized to teach only to the standardized test.

In fact, school improvement is made particularly difficult through a mechanism in the plan that gives more weight to wealthier schools on the higher end of the rankings that maintain their test scores than it does to poorer ones on the lower end that improve theirs.

All this means that if your children's school receives a low grade when the scores are announced next week, don't worry too much. It may be less of a reflection on the failures of their school and more on the failures of our governor.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

writebacktomike@gmail.com

Twitter: @miketipping

 

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