It is incredibly important for Maine schools to be open about how their students perform academically and to use that data to pinpoint where they can improve. But distilling a school’s performance into a letter grade, as Gov. Paul LePage has done with a new report card system for public schools, is not helpful for students, administrators or community members. There are already systems in place to track a school’s performance. The new grading system shows a more accurate picture of economic disparity than academic achievement.
The state should instead continue to focus on working together with schools to help them craft more individualized improvement plans to meet goals that are fair, realistic and largely designed at the local level. That is what the Maine Department of Education is trying to do with its waiver request for flexibility from having to meet rigid standards under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
So it’s unclear why the department is pushing a new grading system to compare schools from different socioeconomic areas. The department says the goal is to provide a tool parents and community members can use to hold schools accountable for explaining academic performance, but that is already happening. The result is more likely to be that schools, largely from lower-income areas, are simply shamed. The grading system was not created with buy-in from districts.
The assigned grades of elementary and high schools are not surprising, as there is a strong correlation between higher grades and economic status. High schools in Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, South Berwick, Cumberland, Scarborough, Yarmouth and York were among those to receive As. Ten high schools received Fs, including those in Millinocket, Milo, Harrington, Jackman, Bingham and Danforth.
Of course schools should always strive to do well, but comparing them at least requires a control for economic variables. It is not fair to judge, for instance, the academic performance of Cape Elizabeth High School, where 5.3 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, against Upper Kennebec Valley Memorial High School in Bingham, where 65.75 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
The research is clear: Affluent students tend to do better in school, and the achievement gap between high- and low-income students has only grown wider over the last few decades. Of course students from low-income areas can outperform those from wealthy areas, and schools from low-income areas can and do succeed academically, but the odds are against them.
So, yes, judge high schools based on their graduation rates and test scores, and judge elementary schools based on their test scores and performance growth among the bottom 25 percent, as this grading system does. Offer assistance to schools that need it.
But don’t place another encumbrance on schools in low-income areas that are already working to address both educational needs and those that arise from poverty. The grading system is uncompassionate and unreliable. A school’s performance is too important and complex to be reduced to a letter in this way.