AUGUSTA — The LePage administration unveiled a sweeping new statewide grading system for public schools, a hallmark of the governor’s education reform efforts, that immediately drew sharp criticism Wednesday from educators who say it stigmatizes poor schools with a failing grade.

The A-to-F grading system is also drawing support from those who say the grades are a way to give parents a gauge of how well their child’s school is performing.

Statewide, the majority of high schools and elementary schools received a C grade. For elementary schools, only 12 percent got A’s, and 13 percent got B’s. For high schools, only 10 schools, or 8 percent, got A’s; and 20 schools, or 16 percent, got B’s.

In central Maine school districts, 62 percent of schools received a C.

Grades were generally lower in Somerset County than in Kennebec County. No Kennebec school received an F, but Somerset schools with an F included Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman, Upper Kennebec Valley High School in Bingham and Somerset Valley Middle School and Somerset Valley Middle School in Hartland. Three schools in Thorndike-based RSU 3 received F’s.

The only Augusta-area school to receive an F was Whitefield Elementary.

A handful of local schools received A’s, including Fayette Central School and Augusta’s Hussey Elementary, both of which earned scores that put them in the top five among elementary and middle schools in Maine.

At a news conference at the Maine State Library, Gov. Paul LePage said the grades would make schools accountable. He was surrounded at the news conference by about a dozen Maine students, as well as several international students who LePage said are enrolled in schools around Bangor and Ellsworth.

“We grade all our children, and now all we’re doing is taking data that is in the filing cabinets and putting it out so parents, teachers, administrators, anyone and everyone interested in the schools, in a school system in Maine, to see how they’re doing,” LePage said.

“I want the good schools to be rewarded, and those that aren’t doing as well, we want to be able to help them. It’s for our kids,” he said. “We need to put our kids first. … These kids are our future for our state, country and the world.”

Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, criticized the methodology, which he says gives failing grades to schools with the highest number of students on free and reduced-price lunch programs.

The MEA noted that statewide, the high schools that received an A had an average of 9 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, while the schools that received F’s had an average of 61 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch. Of the elementary schools, those that received an F grade had an average of 67 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch; while in schools receiving A’s, the was 25 percent.

In addition to proficiency rates, the report card incorporates measures of student progress, which are theoretically fairer to schools with disadvantaged students. However, high schools’ growth scores were just as strongly correlated with rates of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch as the proficiency scores were.

The relationship between scores and student demographics was weaker for elementary and middle schools, especially for their growth scores.

Walker said the grading system also will affect the overall community.

“If you have a system with F’s, you’re going to create a system where businesses, Realtors, parents lose faith in the community because the snapshot is incomplete,” he said. “There are lots of great things going on at these schools that they mentioned, but they got an F.”

The letter-grade plan is the latest education initiative from LePage, who has been sharply critical of public schools. Since he took office, the state has opened charter schools and launched a teacher evaluation plan, although he has failed in efforts to get school choice passed or to provide public funds for religious schools.

His education reforms, including the letter grades, are closely aligned with reforms pushed by a conservative education reform movement that is sweeping the nation. High-profile leaders include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Craig Wallace, Maine director of StudentsFirst, Rhee’s organization, praised the new system in a statement Wednesday.

“StudentsFirst has consistently supported A-F grading for schools in an effort to provide parents with the information they need to make informed decisions about their child’s education,” Wallace said.

Walker also criticized the development of the grading system by Department of Education and governor’s office staffers.

“They invented a system,” he said. “They didn’t involve the communities. They didn’t involve the superintendents or teachers. They invented it just to create a grade. It really reflects back on one speech. The governor says, ‘Hey, let’s give schools a grade.'”

 Summing up a school

State officials are quick to acknowledge that a single grade doesn’t capture many elements, but they argue that the simplicity is its strength. People understand a letter grade, said state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. And it’s a sure way to get people talking, he said.

“The phones are going to ring. They’ll ring at the principal’s office, they’ll ring at the superintendent’s office and they’ll ring here,” Bowen said from his office in Augusta. “It’s an attention getter.”

That’s why the department released the report cards the same day it unveiled a new “data warehouse” on its website, so parents and other interested people can get detailed data on individual schools. The system has extensive statistics, and the ability to sort and compare among schools, or against state averages.

“We’re hoping people will go in (to the data warehouse) … and ask questions,” said Bowen, whose daughter attends a school that received an A grade.

Critics say such efforts take resources from the public school system, further burden schools and teachers with new requirements and unfairly allocate public funds.

Bowen and others said they hoped to use the school letter grades eventually to identify failing schools and provide state money to help them, perhaps through a $3 million school accountability fund proposed in the governor’s budget. That allocation was rejected last month by the Education Committee and is now before the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.

Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin has described the fund as being similar to the federal School Improvement Grant program, which provides funds to low-performing schools.

It would use state funds to assist schools that don’t qualify for federal assistance under Title I, the program that puts money into economically disadvantaged school districts, he said.

State Democratic leaders were quick to criticize the new grading system.

“We are sending a terrible message to parents, students and teachers in our schools,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Rep. Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, in a release from House Democrats.

“The governor should be marketing our state in a positive way, not shaming our communities and our students and driving down our property values. His grading system is a cynical and demoralizing effort to advance his so called ‘school choice’ agenda.”

More than a dozen other states use similar grading systems. In general, the grades are based on standardized test scores in mathematics and English, students’ growth and progress, and the performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students. For high schools, graduation rates are factored in.

Education leaders, however, say letter grades are too simplistic for measuring a school’s success.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and former superintendent of Augusta schools, said that assigning letter grades is at odds with the state’s movement away from assigning letter grades to students.

Bowen has strongly supported the move to what’s called standards-based grading, saying that taking an average of a student’s work to create a letter grade doesn’t make sense because it obscures strengths and weaknesses.

“I think that when you look at the results, it’s very clear that communities that have the advantages and the resources are the communities that received the A’s, and the communities that are already up against it are receiving F’s,” she said.

Questions about fairness

Even in districts with high grades, there was criticism of the formula.

“It’s brushing your school with a very broad stroke,” said Kennebunk Superintendent Andrew Dolloff, whose schools all got A’s or B’s. “I sympathize with those whose grades aren’t as strong as their communities would like to see.”

There was also some concern about the accuracy of the data, and changes were being made to the grades right up until the press conference after schools got the grades and reviewed the data. Dolloff said the state told him Kennebunk High School got a B, but when he checked the data, it should have been an A. The grade was changed after state officials acknowledged the computer was not programmed to round off numbers, so it read Kennebunk’s 94.9 percent participation rate as less than 95 percent, and penalized the school a full letter grade.

Several other superintendents called with concerns, according to William Hurwitch, the director of the state’s educational database.

Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of Hallowell-based RSU 2, said he sees the report cards and letter grades as a starting point as Maine figures out a way to report what’s actually happening in schools.

“I don’t want folks to think that we’re not for accountability, because we certainly are,” Hammonds said. “The question, though, is how do you paint that picture. Is one score the way to do that? Perhaps, but right now I don’t think that grade is painting as clear a picture as it should.”

Noel K. Gallagher — 791-6387
[email protected]

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]