AUGUSTA, Maine — A day after the Department of Education released report cards for Maine’s schools for the second year in a row, school administrators expressed frustration over what they call a flawed grading system.
“We reject the notion that a school can be given a single grade that has much meaning at all,” said Michael Wright, superintendent of School Administrative District 41, which serves the communities of Milo, Brownville, LaGrange and Atkinson. “Schools are much more than how they perform on a single test or measure.”
Principals at schools that received an F last year said they did not get the support they had expected from the department in response to their failing grade, though officials from the department said they offered professional development to all Maine schools based on feedback from educators.
“They did reach out to us failing schools,” said Cynthia Remick, the principal of the Fred P. Hall Elementary School, a school in Portland that received and F last year and a D this year.
She explained that a representative from the department contacted her in the spring and set up a meeting.
“I probably met with him for an hour and a half, two hours,” she said. “That was it. There was no plan, no resources, no additional staffing support.”
The intent of the meeting at the Fred P. Hall School was not to develop an individualized improvement plan, as Remick may have hoped, but to include the school in a statewide effort to gather information on what all Maine’s struggling schools needed, explained the DOE’s chief academic officer, Rachelle Tome.
Schools that received either a D or an F were asked to fill out a survey or were interviewed about where they needed support and what the DOE could do to help, said Tome. Based on the responses to those surveys, the department set up webinars and professional development opportunities that were available to all educators.
“Some people may have thought that they were going to get individualized attention,” said Tome. “We do not have that capacity.”
The department offered professional development on the implementation of Maine’s new learning standards, proficiency based diplomas, technology initiatives and the release of the grading system to thousands of educators, according to the DOE’s communications director, Samantha Warren.
She said that there’s a fine line between too much and too little intervention from the state.
“Improvement is locally lead, with resources from the department,” she said. “Obviously we can help guide schools in that process, but they’re the ones that have to do the work that’s appropriate for them.”
There is another system of evaluating schools underway that does offer funding to struggling schools — the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also referred to as No Child Left Behind. Under this system, schools that qualify work with consultants at the Maine DOE on an improvement plan and receive federal money.
Many schools that got an F or a D under Maine’s grading system also qualify for these federal funds.
But there are some that do not.
“Our ability to reach and support them will look different because of the limitations that we currently have,” said Tome.
She added that when the grading system was being developed by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration two years ago, the department had hoped to include funding for school improvement in their budget.
“The intent of that was to develop a system that mirrored what we were doing with the Title 1 system,” Tome said, referring to the federal system.
“We probably weren’t clear enough on what we were trying to do and the Legislature didn’t approve it,” she said.
Warren explained that the federal system is difficult to interpret, which is why the state’s grading system is necessary for school accountability.
“The difference is the A to F [system] packages the data so it’s accessible to the public,” she said.
The report cards assign a letter grade to Maine’s schools based on how well students performed and improved on standardized tests and, in the case of high schools, the graduation rate.
The system’s critics say that is not an accurate representation of school performance.
“No school in the state would be allowed to give a student a grade based on one test score,” said Suzanne Godin, superintendent of the South Portland School District. “But the state is doing that to schools.”
Rather than evaluating school effectiveness, critics say the grades reflect student poverty levels.
“Once again, the A-F grades underscore the impact of poverty on student achievement,” wrote Portland School Department Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk in a prepared statement released Thursday. “Most of the schools with the lowest grades exceed the average poverty rate for Maine schools.”
The Maine Education Association issued a statement that made a similar claim.
Like last year, schools that received D and F grades had, on average, much higher percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch than schools that received an A or a B, according to DOE data.
But DOE officials point out that that is not always the case. According to DOE data, more than 50 percent of students qualified for free and reduced lunch at 12 of the 40 elementary schools that received an A. However, none of the high schools that received A’s had more than half their students qualifying for the program.
Commissioner Jim Rier visited some of the A-rated schools with high poverty rates last week in an effort to highlight and learn from their success.
“Those schools were A schools and there’s a reason for that and it’s not just by a fluke,” he said of the schools he visited. “We think we need to be sharing those characteristics with others.”