By now, the LePage administration’s school grading system has such little credibility that it would be best for the Maine Department of Education to drop the grades. It is, in fact, already providing a better alternative that fewer people are likely aware of.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with measuring academic progress or even assigning letter grades to a school’s performance. Certainly that’s how schools measure their own students.
But as any student knows, grades are only worthwhile if they are based on assignments or tests that give them the chance to show what they know. They might also take into consideration non-academic measurements like attendance and class participation. They aren’t simplistic.
In addition, when students receive bad grades, they know there is immediate and meaningful help available to reverse the trend.
The education department released its 2014 report cards of Maine schools recently. The letter grades assigned to each school — based on student performance on standardized tests, improvement over time and high schools’ graduation rates — align closely with districts’ economic circumstances. The percentage of each school’s population eligible for free and reduced-price lunch is the top predictor of student performance on standardized tests.
If the goal is for schools to improve, it would be more worthwhile to track and highlight that improvement over time instead of comparing schools in economically disparate areas.
That is, unless the state can offer the C, D and F schools resources for more dynamic leaders, more teachers with proven expertise, more advanced classes, better test-taking training for students, more opportunities for student catch-up and parent involvement, and healthy meals. But of course the likelihood of such extensive assistance is slim, given tight budgets.
If the department doesn’t plan to revise its grading system or provide real and substantial aid to the schools that need it, it would be best to drop the grades completely.
The state is switching to the Smarter Balanced exam next year, which won’t allow comparisons to the state’s current standardized tests.
And parents, community members and students can already get much more valuable information about their schools, thanks to the department’s data warehouse, at http://bit.ly/mainedata. Though it could be more easily navigable, the online tool is a mine of specific and helpful information.
You can find out how schools are progressing academically, track their graduation rates over time or see average teacher salaries and experience levels. You can also discover per-pupil expenditures and break them down into different categories: How much does a certain school pay per student for instruction, administration, facilities maintenance, technical education, or transportation? Track enrollment in pre-kindergarten, special education, and gifted and talented programs. Or examine student attendance rates.
The information is far more revealing and helpful than a single letter grade — and has the benefit of not being immediately divisive.