School administrators, lawmakers and academics have argued for years about how best to measure academic achievement, and Gov. Paul LePage jumped headlong into the debate Wednesday when he announced grades for Maine schools under a new ranking system. Of course it’s important to know how schools and students are performing in order to understand where they can improve. It’s a fine idea to measure a school’s progress, and the state already does it under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
But the data collected from schools must be judged fairly and controlled for a range of variables in order to understand what’s really happening academically. It must be comprehensive and based on the trajectories of individual students. It must not compare schools that can choose which students to enroll with those that can’t. It should be done with school district buy-in. The new rubric does none of these things. Here is what must change and why:
— The model evaluates academic growth in the same way for all students when it’s widely known that growth for students from resource-rich families and communities tends to be easier and growth for students from low-income areas tends to be more difficult. The methodology needs to control for community factors that place extra burdens on schools. Only then can schools and parents start to understand other factors at play that contribute to better learning, such as more rigor, parental involvement and teaching methods.
— The grading system examines the percentage of students at each school who take the Maine High School Assessment. While it’s important to know whether a school has truancy problems, the model goes too far by giving a school an automatic F if fewer than 90 percent of students take the exam. The rule means most students could be doing very well academically, but if only 89 percent of students take the test, none of the good work is recognized.
— The model includes schools — such as John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone — that accept public dollars but choose which students to enroll. These are strong schools and they very well may deserve A grades, but it is not fair to compare them to schools such as Bangor High School and Caribou High School that cannot be selective in choosing their student body.
— The grades are distributed along a bell curve for this first year of data, which means schools are judged based on how they perform relative to other schools, not on whether they are meeting certain academic goals. For instance, if all Maine schools were the best in the nation, some would still receive F’s per this measurement. Or, if all Maine schools were the worst in the nation, some would still receive A’s. The distribution of schools’ grades in this model is determined by the group of schools selected, not whether they meet a meaningful set of standards or criteria.
— Schools with fewer than 10 students are excluded from the model, per federal student privacy laws. But judging schools with 11 or even 20 students is still questionable because it’s easy for just a couple of students to skew the data.
— The department should have sought help from the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of Maine, where it’s researchers’ jobs to know the best ways to measure things such as academic achievement. At the very least it should have pooled the knowledge of a number of school administrators from diverse areas to figure out what should be measured and how, in order to not only devise a more dynamic grading system but include those responsible for explaining the grades to residents. Instead, with a top-down approach, the administration lost the people it needed to sell its idea — and ended up with an inadequate product.
If the goal of the grading system was largely to measure where a school falls along the socioeconomic ladder, LePage succeeded. But we already knew that, in general, poorer students fare less well academically than richer ones. What is missing from the new grading system is any serious discussion of what will be done to help schools that received D’s and F’s. Maine knows that with financial and other help schools can improve, as some have under the federal School Improvement Grants program.
The goal of the grading system should have been to gauge where schools are doing well and where they need to improve. To do that, they should be judged based on what’s actually happening. If a large percentage of students are meeting standards, and academic growth is mediocre, that should be clear. If a different school doesn’t have as great a percentage of students meeting standards but is seeing tremendous growth, there should be a way to show that as well.
Essentially, real growth modeling lets people see progress over time that accounts for the unique characteristics of children. Unfortunately, the administration reduced what could have been a helpful tool into a system best ignored.