June 21, 2018
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Maine Senate flunks Democrats’ bid to replace LePage’s school grading system

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bid by Democrats to replace a controversial grading system for schools died Thursday in the Senate when it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote for passage.

LD 1540, which won majority support earlier this month in both the House and Senate, was killed with a 21-14 vote in the Senate. Democrats from the Legislature’s Education Committee said the bill’s demise represents a missed opportunity to develop a broader school ranking system that provides more than a letter grade.

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, said the point of the Democrats’ plan was to develop a system that took into account more measures than the system championed by Gov. Paul LePage, which is based on standardized test scores and attendance. MacDonald said a more inclusive grading system could not only indicate how a school is doing overall, but also which areas should be targeted for improvement.

“The system the governor laid out uses a method that hurts schools,” he said.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen reacted to Thursday’s vote with relief, though enactment of LD 1540 would almost certainly have led to a gubernatorial veto.

“While Democrats dithered over the last two months on how to undermine our sincere effort to hold schools accountable for students results, we had moved ahead to the real intent of this — helping schools improve student outcomes,” said Bowen in a written statement. “I am pleased to see the knee-jerk reaction to reject our objective measurement system has given way to the reality that our schools need to improve and the acceptance that these letter grades have been a catalyst for that change.”

The Democrat-led proposal would have accounted for test scores, free and reduced lunch rates, the number of students in special education, and input from educators and community members. A task force would have worked through the end of the year to develop the system.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said the system has already had a positive effect on education.

“The A-through-F system relies on a wealth of data that’s already out there in the public domain,” he said. “It helps identify the schools that need the most help.”

The Department of Education is in the midst of refining methods to help struggling schools and has sponsored numerous outreach efforts in recent weeks, according to Bowen.

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, said schools have missed an opportunity for a more introspective evaluation method that sought to measure the growth of critical thinking skills, not just whether students can answer a question correctly.

“The current system is not a measure of how hard a school is working to achieve that,” said Johnson.

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