May 13, 2013

Mike Tipping: School grading system intentionally flawed to achieve a goal

The LePage administration decided ahead of time how many A's, B's, C's, D's and F's it would hand out.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column ("LePage's school grading system meant to punish poor towns," April 27) predicting that the A-F school grades soon to be released by the LePage administration would mostly just show that students in schools in poor towns do worse, on average, on standardized tests than do students in wealthy towns.


Professor Emily Shaw's analysis, Digging Deeper

Rep. Brian Hubbell's blog post, Dismantling Maine schools through grading and 'choice'

Staff Writer Colin Woodard's Special Report: The profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine

Last week, I was proven right. Gov. LePage's grades correlated with the percentage of children in the school receiving free or subsidized school lunches (a proxy for poverty) nearly perfectly.

Emily Shaw, a professor at Thomas College who did one such analysis, wrote that "for high schools, poverty levels were very, very determinative of outcome."

Fortunately, the fact that the grades were based on so narrow and biased a measure was understood quickly, was a part of the response from school officials and was mentioned in most media coverage of the grades.

Unfortunately, other problems with the grading scheme slipped through the cracks.

One of the biggest was the fact that the results were curved arbitrarily. In short, the LePage administration decided ahead of time how many A's, B's, C's, D's and F's it wanted and fit the schools into those categories. This provides a biased view of the results and distorts how schools may actually be doing, even on the narrow measures on which they were assessed.

In other words, even if Maine schools were all the absolute best in the country, the rankings would have shown the exact same number as "failing."

A lack of understanding of this mechanism led to some confusion and even to a hilarious headline in the Bangor Daily News: "Three-quarters of Maine schools below average."

An even more important problem with the rankings, however -- and one that hasn't received nearly enough attention -- is the political and corporate agenda behind them.

Thanks to a LePage administration memo obtained by education policy expert and state Rep. Brian Hubbell, which he published on his blog, we now know more about this agenda. The memo was written to LePage from Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and discusses their plans for "school accountability."

"The biggest step by far would be to authorize some kind of takeover of a school by the state," writes Bowen. "A step that is not quite as dramatic as a state takeover would be to allow students in failing schools to have school choice. We could try to add that in, but again, I don't know if we have the votes."

"School choice" is their term for allowing more public money to follow students to private schools.

Bowen concludes: "So the real question is, how hard do you want to push on this? Let me know. Accountability is a good issue politically, I think."

First of all, this talk of votes and it being a good political issue gives lie to what both Bowen and LePage stated (and tweeted) as they released the school grades that "A-F grading is not a partisan issue."

Second, this shows exactly why the system was designed to be so simplistic and to make sure that a certain number of schools would be designated as failing. They wanted an excuse to pass legislation allowing them to take over schools, bring in more private and charter schools, and divert public funds to for-profit education companies.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)