PORTLAND — Instead of handing out report cards, school officials will get grades themselves next week, as the state Department of Education announces A through F grades for each of Maine’s 600 public schools.
The first report card has yet to land, but the plan already is drawing fire Friday from Democrat legislative leaders and school officials.
“Of course we want every school to be the best school it can be, but it appears the governor wants nothing more than to fix an arbitrary letter grade onto our schools to shame them,” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
School superintendents get their schools’ grades Monday, and the statewide database will be posted Wednesday on the state Department of Education website.
The letter-grade plan is the latest education initiative launched by Gov. Paul LePage, who has been sharply critical of public schools and has clashed with school unions. He first announced the plan in his State of the State address in February.
Since he took office, the state has opened to charter schools and launched a teacher evaluation plan. LePage also unsuccessfully has proposed school choice and diverting public funds for religious schools.
His administration has been criticized for adopting education reform measures borrowed heavily from Florida — former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education think tank and other conservative education reformers who advocate for changes that include teacher evaluations, school grading systems, voucher programs and charter schools in the name of accountability and parental choice.
Opponents say such efforts take away resources from the public school system, further burden schools and teachers with new requirements and unfairly allocate public funds.
This is one more example of that, Alfond said Friday.
“This administration seems to be fixated on the Florida school system; and whatever the state of Florida does, this administration seems to think it’s the best thing to do,” Alfond said.
More than a dozen states use similar grading systems, and Maine’s system is based largely on Florida’s model, including the formula for assessing the grades. In general, the grades are based on standardized test scores in mathematics and English, growth and progress and the performance and growth in the bottom 25 percent of students. For high schools, graduation rates and SAT performance are also factored in.
None of the factors are new, and details on how the state uses that information to reach a specific grade is available at the department’s website, along with the actual testing data for each school.
The grades would be updated once a year, probably in the spring, for the next two years; and would be used for all public schools, including charter schools and the state’s 11 town academies. It would not be used to rate private schools or career and technical schools.
Education leaders say letter grades are too simplistic a way to measure a school’s success.
“I question whether grading a school a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ is the right tool for encouragement or improvement,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, Senate co-chairwoman of the committee. “It seems like a lot of resources and effort went into the grading system and not into the actual improvement process.”
The administration understands that concern, said Education Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin.
“We know the grade doesn’t tell the story of a whole school, but we think there is value in it,” Connerty-Marin said. “The whole point of it is to give parents and communities a snapshot of where their school is at.”
Both Alfond and Millett said they were worried about the immediate effect on communities.
“What happens next week when a school finds out it’s an ‘F’? What happens to property values?” Millett said. “And if you are trying to sell a home and your community was given an ‘F’? Good luck.”
Connerty-Marin countered that many real estate companies and outside groups already rate schools and assign them grades.
Connie Brown, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said her organization opposes the new system.
“I think it’s a punitive approach to shame schools,” said Brown, who was briefed on the system methodology this week. Like other critics of evaluation systems based on test scores, Brown said the system don’t take into account other programs, such as art or music.
“Schools are not just institutions that exclusively teach reading and math. There is so much that goes into a good, quality school,” she said. “I think (the letter grading) is narrow and it’s rather disingenuous.”
Brown took issue with some specific measurements.
She said, for example, that a school gets an automatic “F” if fewer than 90 percent of students take one of the standardized tests. Connerty-Marin said about a dozen schools had fewer than 90 percent participation last year.
Brown also noted that elementary schools are graded based on a test that is only taken by third-graders and above, so the whole school gets a grade “based on half the grades in the building.”
“That doesn’t hold water,” she said.
An education expert who created Arizona’s first school accountability system said more and more states are moving to this kind of grading system. While they aren’t necessarily effective at improving schools, grading systems do not cause as much turmoil as people fear.
“When (the grades) come out, just like every other dashboard indicator, it isn’t going to tell the public something they don’t already know about their schools,” said David R. Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University who specializes in school choice and accountability.
Garcia said his research hasn’t found that grading systems result in students withdrawing from schools that receive low grades or flocking to ones with high grades.
“A-through-F grading has not generated the kind of movement and outcry people thought it would,” Garcia said.
The problem is that the grades don’t provide much new information, he said. They also can stifle — or miss entirely — a school or state’s ability to be innovative, he said, because the grades are based largely on standardized data.
A spokeswoman for Bush’s education think tank, the Foundation for Excellence in Education in Florida, said the simplicity of the letter grade is its greatest asset.
“A to F is one of the central reforms that we believe is important. What this does is bring the pressure of accountability,” said Jaryn Emhof. “Everybody knows what it means.”
Connerty-Marin said he thought the public would “love” the system.
“Once it goes out to the public, they’re not going to want it to go away,” Connerty-Marin said.