January 27, 2020
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Grading schools based on conservative ideals

Lynne Miller

With the release of letter grades for Maine’s schools, Gov. Paul LePage unveiled yet another aspect of his misguided plan to reform education in the state. Looking to Florida as a model, he and his education commissioner assigned each school a grade on a scale of A to F and then published the results without ever explaining to the schools on what basis they were being graded. Imagine if your child were to bring home a letter grade on a test that he or she knew nothing about. You’d be outraged.

You’d probably also be outraged if you found out that that the cards were stacked against your child receiving a grade above C. That is what happens when grades are based on a curve, as was the case with the schools. As anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics knows, grading on a curve ensures that about 80 percent of participants will receive a grade of C or lower.

Grading on a curve is something the governor and the commissioner are on record as opposing. One of the centerpieces of the their educational reform package, now in law, calls for the elimination of both letter grades and the grading curve in favor of a “standards-based” system. Such a system assigns a score from 1 to 4 to indicate the degree to which a student has met public and transparent academic standards. It is quite perplexing that the method selected for assessment of schools is based on the very system the state rejected for measuring student progress.

What is more perplexing is why the governor and commissioner settled on Florida as a model for education in Maine. While it is true that Florida showed the greatest rise in student achievement on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, it still lags far behind the top performer, which is Massachusetts. The governor didn’t give our near neighbor a passing glance on his way to Florida.

Unlike Florida, Massachusetts established “world class standards” as early as 1993 and has not deviated from them since. It has been the highest state scorer on the NAEP since 2005; it raised SAT scores for 13 consecutive years and outpaced all other states in closing the achievement gap between rich and poor. Massachusetts ranked No. 1 in both fourth and eighth grade reading, while Florida ranked No. 21 in fourth grade reading and No. 35 in eighth grade scores.

Maine, by the way, also outranked Florida at No. 14 in fourth grade reading and No. 7 in eighth grade scores. So why choose Florida as a model? Why fly a delegation of politicians more than 1,000 miles to tell us how to change our schools when Massachusetts is a car ride away?

We need look no further than The American Legislative Exchange Council for an answer. ALEC is a conservative think tank and lobbying group that writes model legislation on a variety of topics, including education. ALEC’s favorite education state is Florida, and LePage is one of ALEC’s biggest fans. In fact, his “Putting Students First” plan for Maine takes its language directly from ALEC.

Among the strategies that ALEC promotes is assigning grades to schools. It assigned Florida the highest grade and awarded Massachusetts a C. ALEC’s grading system is based on how well states implement its conservative platform that includes privatizing education through school vouchers, lifting caps on charter schools, watering down teacher licensing requirements, supporting private schools at public expense, eroding local control through school choice programs, lifting homeschool regulations and encouraging virtual schooling.

ALEC doesn’t much like Massachusetts. Maybe that’s because Massachusetts doesn’t grade schools or bow to ALEC’s agenda. Instead, it focuses on getting the job done and develops strategies free of political ideology. Massachusetts has invested in its teachers and its schools and guided students toward graduation without sacrificing standards of excellence. It graduated 85 percent of its students compared with Florida’s 74.5 percent. Unlike Florida, Massachusetts acknowledges the fact that most teachers want to improve outcomes for their students and that shaming and blaming teachers and schools is unlikely to reap rewards.

If our governor really wants to put students first, he would be well advised to put ALEC and Florida last and look more closely at Massachusetts. That way, he might earn a passing grade. However, his latest call for public funding of religious schools and lifting the cap on charter schools is right out of the ALEC playbook, making it more likely he will continue to earn a grade of F.

Lynne Miller is professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine, where she teaches courses in research and teaching practice. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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