A year ago, the release of report cards that boiled Maine schools’ performance and progress down to a single letter grade rightly sparked complaints about a grading system that was a better indicator of socioeconomic status than of school success.
This week, the Maine Department of Education will release the second generation of those letter grades. The department will use the same calculation, so this year’s scores can be compared with last year’s. But the department is trying to shift the conversation to one of recognition of school improvement.
Education Commissioner Jim Rier this week will visit some of the more than 100 schools receiving letter grades that are better than last year’s.
There’s also an attempt to acknowledge circumstances beyond standardized test scores that correlate strongly with schools’ letter grades. The letter grades themselves will remain measures of student performance on the most recent year’s standardized tests, improvement over time, and high schools’ graduation rates. But this year’s school report cards also will highlight the percentage of each school’s population that is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch — the top predictor of student performance on standardized tests — along with measures of teachers’ experience and education.
The school grading system introduced by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is arbitrary and unreliable. We’re pleased that the Department of Education will be forced to re-evaluate it after this school year because of the introduction of a new standardized test next school year, the Smarter Balanced assessment — if the grading system survives at all.
But the grades were useful in that they sparked a wide-ranging conversation about academic performance and what schools can do to improve. And the school grading system helped jump-start an effort at the Department of Education to reorganize the way it delivers support to schools that need it.
Specialists in the agency reached out to all schools that scored D and F to determine what support they needed, said Rachelle Tome, the department’s chief academic officer. The department developed a series of online presentations focused on different aspects of school improvement. It introduced a new professional development initiative focused on literacy that involved literacy specialists as well as teachers from all academic subjects, since literacy affects academic success in all areas. And department staff made a special effort to encourage teachers from schools that scored low in the grading system to participate in professional development initiatives offered by the department.
“The districts and schools getting support from content specialists [at the department] were those who knew to call,” said Tome. “Those weren’t necessarily the schools that had a lot of need.”
The Department of Education has a role to play in helping low-scoring schools improve. It can make helpful resources available to Maine’s small schools and school districts to guide their improvement efforts. But, ultimately, the ability of a state agency with resources stretched thin to drive school improvement is limited.
True improvement at schools — especially those with high percentages of poor students — has to come from within: from top-notch, devoted and focused leadership; from well-trained teachers who commit to the school’s focused vision for improvement and who collaborate with colleagues, sharing with each other what works; from a culture that emphasizes high expectations for every student and continuous improvement; and from smart use of data.
The letter grades that will come out later this week from the Department of Education won’t measure those important components of school improvement. But the conversation those grades are capable of sparking would best focus on schools’ plans for improvement, rather than the grades themselves.