Gendron explains ‘lowest-achieving’ school rankings

Posted March 30, 2010, at 9:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Under pressure by school administrations to explain how the Maine Department of Education came up with its list of the 10 “persistently lowest-achieving schools” which are eligible to apply for $12 million in federal funding, Commissioner Susan Gendron clarified the process Tuesday morning in a media conference call.

The department also made public its achievement and progress list for all Maine schools, although officials reiterated that they do not consider the list to be a ranking of schools.

“We know there will be a temptation by some to do the ranking,” Gendron said. “What we’re trying to stress is not the rank, but the data.”

Her department also has come under fire by some educators because of the way it shared the list of the 10 schools with school departments and the public.

“The way it was rolled out, who wants to be in that light at all?” asked Principal Eric Waddell of Presque Isle High School, which was not among the 10. “Some states did it very differently. They didn’t look at it as a scarlet letter. They said that based on a bunch of different things — your socioeconomic data, free and reduced lunch — you guys are eligible. Almost like a grant. People compete for grants. They’re just running away from this.”

The question of ranking became a point of contention for many earlier this month when the state released the controversial list of schools that fit a complicated series of criteria, including a high proportion of low-income families and low student achievement and progress tracked over the course of three years.

Department of Education officials tracked student test results for three years beginning with 2006-07 and determined the average math and reading proficiencies in individual schools. They determined each school’s progress number by adding the change in proficiency over the three years with a state median of 4.18 percent improvement.

The 10 “persistently low-achieving” schools were identified by examining data from schools that are among the lowest-achieving 5 percent eligible for Title 1 school improvement grants, which are reserved for areas with low-income families. The state therefore considered only 85 out of more than 650 total schools for the list, according to the department.

Although those 10 schools are eligible to apply for a portion of $12 million in federal school improvement grants, so far Houlton High School and Livermore Falls High School have opted not to take part in the program, Gendron said. Hodgdon High School also decided last week not to take part.

All participating schools will have to make major changes in how they operate, as they must adopt one of four “turnaround” models.

“[The government] is looking for a return on its investment,” said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education. “They’re willing to put up more money, but the other piece is that there are a lot of conditions.”

Gendron said she believes it to be “absolutely critical” that Maine schools have a focused action plan to raise graduation and other achievement levels for students. Toward that end, the department is developing a sample kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum at the request of administrators, Gendron said.

“We need to establish some benchmarks in our state,” she said. “I think we have to define proficiency. What is it we want students to demonstrate?”

The federal school improvement grants will allow struggling schools to “significantly” change practices — which likely will include requiring schools to offer students more learning opportunities such as before- and after-school programs and summer school.

“They’re going to need to drill deeper,” she said.

Other educators, including Gregg Palmer, principal of Searsport District Middle-High School, said he had been anxious to see the department’s complete achievement and progress list. Gendron singled out his high school during the conference call as a positive example of a school that is lower-achieving but making rapid progress, citing its intervention system for struggling students.

According to the list, just 21 percent of Searsport District High School juniors met or exceeded the Maine Learning Results standards for math and reading in the 2006-07 school year, but two years later 41 percent of students did.

“If you just look at our numbers, it tells you that we’re an economically disadvantaged school,” Palmer said, noting that 40 percent of his students qualify for free or reduced lunch. “But what the growth tells you is that we’re now beating the odds.”

He said the turnaround came after his school qualified for a five-year, $400,000 Great Maine Schools grant, similar in some ways to the money that is now available but without a discouraging connotation.

“That was a positive spin,” he said of his grant. “You don’t want to get it for negative reasons. That’s why people are mad. We would have been, too.”

The Education Department’s complete achievement and progress list of schools can be viewed at: www.maine.gov/education/progress.

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