National magazine: Maine’s high schools rank among best in the US

Posted April 22, 2014, at 6:19 p.m.
Maine School of Science and Mathematics Executive Director Luke Shorty
Kathryn Olmstead | BDN
Maine School of Science and Mathematics Executive Director Luke Shorty

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s education system earned accolades Tuesday from a national publication that says the state has some of the best high schools in the country and that, overall, Maine ties California for high quality high schools.

The Maine School of Science and Mathematics ranked best in the state and 14th in the nation in new high school rankings released Tuesday by U.S. News and World Report.

The ratings are based on data from the 2011-12 school year. The same analysis found that Maine is tied with California for the highest percentage of high schools earning top marks. In both states, about 22 percent of schools receive the publication’s gold and silver medals.

The Limestone-based Maine School of Science and Mathematics, which ranked 13th best in the country last year and is also near the top of the list of the best magnet schools in the nation, is growing used to its lofty perch. However, Executive Director Luke Shorty said that doesn’t detract from the celebratory atmosphere at Maine’s only public magnet school.

“I couldn’t have dreamed of another great way to show the accolades of our students and our teachers and our community,” said Shorty on Tuesday. “It acknowledges what the students and the faculty bring to the table and their dedication to academics.”

MSSM, which was created by the Legislature in 1994 and accepted its first class of students in 1995, is serving about 121 students this year, all but six of whom are from Maine. Students undergo a college-like application process to qualify. Shorty said the success of the school has a lot to do with the work those students did at their former public schools.

“One of the factors is the strength of the public school [system] throughout the state of Maine,” said Shorty. “They’re receiving phenomenal preparation from their sending schools.”

For many schools, ranking high on the publication’s annual list is an affirmation of a job well done. For schools that draw from wide areas, such as MSSM, the rankings are an invaluable recruitment tool.

“There are students from outside of Maine who see this publication and find that MSSM can accept students from outside of Maine,” said Shorty.

MSSM was one of the only schools not in the southern part of the state that made the publication’s top 10 list for Maine. The others, in order, were Falmouth High School, Yarmouth High School, Cape Elizabeth High School, Kennebunk High School, Wells High School, York High School, Camden Hills Regional High School, Orono High School and Scarborough High School.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents most Maine public school teachers, said the new rankings highlight what educators in the state already knew, despite what she called Gov. Paul LePage’s “shame and blame” grading system.

“We have been telling anyone who would listen for the last four years that Maine schools do a wonderful job educating our students, so to hear Maine schools are succeeding comes as no surprise to anyone at MEA or any educator in our classrooms around the state,” said Kilby-Chesley.

The rankings were derived from a formula that involves student-to-teacher ratios, college readiness rankings and standardized math and reading scores. In all, the ranking system involved more than 31,000 public high schools, including 26 Maine schools that achieved gold, silver or bronze awards from the publication. However, dozens of Maine schools are on U.S. News and World Report’s list.

The rankings come in advance of the release of new state-level grades being prepared by the Maine Department of Education. The grades, which were first issued last year at the direction of the LePage administration, are due in mid-May, according to department spokeswoman Samantha Warren.

Those grades were criticized last year because they showed that, in general, grades from the Department of Education correlated closely with the percentage of students each school had who qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis. Schools with higher percentages of students from low-income homes generally received lower grades.

The Maine Education Policy Research Institute released a report in January 2014 that had a similar finding.

According to the Department of Education, the method for developing the grades to be published next month will not change, though the school report cards will include new measures that factor in student poverty, school funding levels, teacher tenure and teacher education levels. Maine schools received data that will be used to compute their grades earlier this month, according to DOE news release. That information is included in a data-heavy website maintained by the Department of Education.

“Our grading system is also based on our belief that all students, regardless of the challenges they face, can learn, and that schools in even the poorest communities can transform the lives of the children they serve,” wrote Warren in response to questions from the BDN. “While we acknowledge that there is a correlation between the income and education levels of families and the academic achievement of their children, across Maine there are dozens of success stories of schools that are high-performing despite high populations of low-income students.”

Education Commissioner Jim Rier said the school report cards are about transparency and improving the education system.

“All of us want the best schools for our students, and though we might not all like what the grading system reveals, we must commit to improve upon its findings rather than ignore or excuse them,” said Rier in a prepared statement. “I believe the information we will be adding to this year’s report cards makes them an even more valuable tool to help the public and education leaders easily identify school strengths and weaknesses and make comparisons that will drive the improvements Maine kids deserve.”

Last year’s A grades include most of the schools that placed in U.S. News and World Report’s top 10 in Maine this year. The exceptions were Wells and Camden Hills Regional high schools, which received Bs from the state last year, and Orono High School, which received a C.

Orono High School Principal Jim Chasse said Tuesday that grades and rankings aren’t what motivate his staff and students, but that the magazine’s grades come as good news.

“We don’t spend a crazy amount of time saying, ‘If we do this or we do that, we’ll score high,’” said Chasse. “We do spend a lot of time in conversations around having a lot of rigor and relevance and helping students think and speak for themselves. … We take where the student is at and really concentrate on the student’s individual growth. Regardless of your entry level as a high school student, we will take you a long way.”

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