Washington County administrators, parents dispute state school grades

Posted May 02, 2013, at 4:36 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Parents and school administrators in Washington County were reeling Thursday after a new statewide school ranking system gave 19 percent of their schools a failing grade — the highest number of schools receiving an “F” grade of all counties in the state.

They called it unfair and faulty to compare a tiny rural school with eight students in the state’s poorest county to much larger schools in much more affluent counties.

On Wednesday, the Maine Department of Education released a letter grade report card for each Maine school based on math and reading test scores, improvement and, for high schools, graduation rate.

Reaction in Washington County was swift.

Barry McLaughlin, superintendent of Woodland Junior-Senior High school, the school with the poorest rank in the state, said the system uses shaming, which does not work. “It is the role of schools to encourage people, not embarrass and shame them.”

“This was really demoralizing to a lot of schools in the state that have worked very hard to do this important work,” Scott Porter, AOS 96 superintendent said. AOS 96 includes 11 coastal Washington County communities. “Schools are going to bounce back and forth every year and you will naturally see very significant changes.”

Mitchell Look, principal of Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School in Machias, which serves students from pre-K to grade eight, sent a memo out to all parents: “The Department has given RMG a letter grade of a C this year. I would have liked to see a higher grade, but the criteria that is used, especially the growth criteria, make it difficult for us to get that higher score. RMG scored extremely high last year which made for little room for growth. Out of 29 schools, RMG was first in math for a two year average and third in reading. We should be extremely proud of our kids for their work. I believe the system that is used is flawed as there will be schools with far lower test scores who will get an A or B.”

Becky Weaver of Machias has sent three children through the Gaffney school in Machias and has a seventh-grade daughter on the honor roll. She said it was ridiculous that the school was ranked C because it didn’t make sufficient progress from previous testing years.

“We were already ranked second in the county in reading and third in math proficiency,” Weaver said. “So we get a lower letter grade even when we didn’t slip backwards? We are being punished for already doing a good job. That C does not accurately reflect our school. This school cares about success.”

“The system is biased and flawed,” said Denis Howard, superintendent of Union 103, which includes Jonesport and Beals schools. He said that in tiny schools such as those in Washington County, one or two students’ scores, presence or competence can skew any ranking results.

“We only have 15 seniors,” he said, “and we compete with the lobster industry. If we have two students drop out it has a drastic effect on our ranking. That would be a drop in the bucket in a large system like Bangor.”

Howard said parents and teachers should let the new ranking system “play out. The system may be flawed against the state’s poorest schools. This is so discouraging.” More than 61 percent of the students at Jonesport-Beals High School, which received a D ranking, qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“This area is land rich and job poor,” Howard said. “We work hard and there is a lot of good going on here.”

McLaughlin agreed with Howard. “There couldn’t be a stronger correlation between poverty and success in school,” McLaughlin said Thursday. “The free and reduced lunch rate is a legitimate means of measuring poverty and poor children are definitely at a disadvantage.” At Woodland, 52.78 percent of junior and high school students qualify for reduced meals and 64.2 of elementary students do also.

The Maine Education Association also drew a straight line between poorly ranked schools and poverty in a statement released Wednesday, saying that the ranking system does not reflect achievement.

“The system is based on standardized test scores and high school graduation rates, and pits wealthy communities against poorer ones, giving our less financially advantaged students lower grades,” MEA contends. “Upon review of the grades this analysis becomes clearer — schools in wealthier communities in Maine fared far better under the governor’s grading scheme, while schools in areas with higher indicators of poverty were the ones branded with the majority of failing grades.”

In Washington County, 60.15 percent of all 4,429 pupils qualify for free or reduced lunches, according to the DOE. Several schools’ percentages were

shockingly high: 100 percent at Wesley Elementary, 80.9 percent at East Grand School in Danforth, 80 percent at Lubec Consolidated Schools, 85 percent at Milbridge Elementary School.

Washington County has the highest unemployment rate in the state. As of March, 11.7 percent of the population in Washington County was unemployed.

Conversely, only eight out of the 50 elementary schools that received an A rank had more than 50 percent of their students on free and reduced lunch.

The MEA maintains that the governor’s grading system “not only uses a measuring stick that is biased and incomplete, but it oversimplifies the extremely complicated process of educating children into a sound bite. However, hopefully what policymakers can gain from this ill-conceived and poorly executed public relations gimmick is that there are deep socioeconomic divides in Maine that have tremendous influence on our children and our public education system. These divides deserve greater scrutiny and interrogation as we proceed to make all public schools in Maine successful.”

McLaughlin said interpreting the ranking results are “very frustrating.”

His senior high school was ranked D, while his junior high obtained an A.

“How do we get a handle on that? These two programs are the same school, the same principal, the same building, the same driveway. It is so frustrating because we lost a full letter grade at the high school level because we had 90.5 percent participation [in the SAT] while the state required 95 percent. This has nothing to do with achievement.”

McLaughlin said that high school juniors are only tested once and therefore progress cannot be determined. “They aren’t comparing the same group of kids,” he said. The test that the juniors take, he added, is the SAT, which predicts the likelihood of a student’s success on the college level.

“The SAT is not an achievement test,” he said. “All of our students are not interested in going to college. It’s difficult to get some students to even show up and take this seriously. If we only have 40 juniors and three don’t show up for the test, we lose a letter grade,” he said. “This creates some real validity issues with the ranking system.”

McLaughlin said he has some questions about how the test results were measured.

“There are some apparent discrepancies in how we were told this would work and how it is actually working. This was rolled out so quickly that we don’t have all the answers to our questions,” he said.

Still, McLaughlin said, he does like that the state system of rankings charts progress.

“That is a good feature,” he said. “It is wonderful that we are talking about growth. We should be doing a lot more than just comparing classes. What is important, what is relevant, what we are concerned about is: Are we moving our students forward? Are they catching up? This is what we should be measuring.”

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