AUGUSTA – Local parents said on Wednesday that the new report cards and letter grades for schools are useful, but school and public officials were skeptical that the grades really reflect the quality of a school.
Many parents interviewed Wednesday said they would look at the grades schools received when choosing a place to raise their children.
Rachel Gagne, 36, of Augusta, said she definitely would look at the schools’ grades if she was looking to move somewhere else, but the C grade Cony High School received wouldn’t cause her to relocate.
“The first thing you look at is the school,” Gagne said about moving to a new area.
Lisa Buzzell, while picking up her fourth-grader daughter from Winthrop Grade School, said the school’s A shows it has improved since she went through the system.
“I think it’s good for the school because I think a lot of parents look into that for where they live,” said Buzzell, 30. “It’s important to send your kids to the best schools.”
Paula Bourque, a parent of two students in Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11, said the grading system could have negative consequences for schools and communities if parents use the grades at face value to decide where to live.
“I’m kind of frustrated that it’s being presented that it’s going to give parents and communities more information about a school,” said Bourque, who also is a literacy coach for the Augusta schools.
Instead, she said, it’s misleading and confusing because some will take it at face value without looking into what led to the score or its limited scope.
“Unfortunately, people are going to make a decision on where they lived based on what’s readily available, and this is readily available,” Bourque said.
Bourque also said she worries that schools will be more concerned about boosting their grades than educating students with the skills they need.
Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, has similar concerns. She said it’s only a snapshot of standardized test scores, but parents and taxpayers will see it inaccurately as an overall assessment of education at the schools.
“This has been distracting, costly and not well thought out,” Grant said. “At best, it’s a waste of time.”
At worst, she said, it’s going to be damaging to the public’s perception of schools, school morale and the students’ esteem for their school.
Grant said, as an example of how the grades don’t show accurately what’s being done in the schools, RSU 11′s Gardiner Area High School would have a C instead of a D if two more students had taken their SAT examinations.
She said she would have the same opinion no matter what grades the schools in her district were awarded.
“I would be just as upset if we got an A because that would give us a false sense of security and complacency,” Grant said.
Gardiner Area High School students performed well enough on tests to earn the school a C, but only 94.5 percent of students participated. Because state and federal authorities require 95 percent participation, the school was docked a grade and fell to a D.
In March, RSU 11 Superintendent Pat Hopkins sent a letter to parents celebrating the gains that RSU 11 students have made on standardized tests in recent years, in some cases surpassing state average scores.
On Wednesday she sent home another letter, this time explaining the district’s middling grades, which she said don’t reflect improvements made in the schools.
“I don’t think a simple grade accurately reflects the day-to-day work that’s going on in the classroom,” Hopkins said. “That work is just far more complicated than a single letter grade can provide.”
An elementary school in RSU 11, Pittston Consolidated School, fell 0.7 points short of a B.
Whitefield Elementary in RSU 12 was the only school in the Augusta area to receive an F. The school’s proficiency rates in reading and mathematics were somewhat low, but its growth scores are much lower, especially the ones reflecting progress among the lowest-performing students.
Principal Josh McNaughton, in his second year at the kindergarten-through-grade 8 school, said it’s obvious there’s work to be done, and some major changes have been made this year. The school restructured the intervention program that provides assistance to students who are behind, and a new literacy coach is working with classroom teachers to implement best practices.
“I’m quite confident that you’re going to see our scores go up dramatically in the future,” McNaughton said.
Debbie Chapman, of Bristol, said some of the grandparents and parents waiting to pick up students before the report cards were released on Wednesday expected Whitefield Elementary to get the lowest possible grade; but she was surprised to learn that the school had received an F.
Chapman said she’s impressed with McNaughton and the teachers, and her granddaughter, third-grader Emma Elwell, is happy at the school.
“It bothers me that it’s an F,” Chapman said. “It could have done better than that, because it is better.”
The two towns in Alternative Organizational Structure 97 had the highest-performing schools in central Maine. Fayette Central School, Winthrop Grade School and Winthrop Middle School all earned A’s. Winthrop High School received a B.
“It validates the work we’re doing in the schools,” Superintendent Gary Rosenthal said, “so we’re really thrilled.”
Rosenthal said the data show that schools in the district are promoting growth among all students, including the lowest achievers.
AOS 97 schools have below-average rates of low-income students in the area, but Rosenthal said he’s not deterministic about socioeconomic status and school performance.
“I don’t buy a lot of that philosophy,” he said. “I’ve done turn-around work in the past. It’s the expectations you set and the programs you implement that really drive what you’re doing for kids.”
Rosenthal said the grades probably will appear in promotional materials being created for Winthrop Schools.
Denise Hart, 40, of Winthrop, said her daughter is only in kindergarten, but she’s been happy with the education at Winthrop Grade School so far.
“I think it’s good. I’m glad to know Winthrop got an A,” Hart said. “I would not feel as comfortable in my child’s education if the school got a D or was failing.”
Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of Hallowell-based RSU 2, said he and the district’s staff are working to understand the calculations that went into the report cards and make sure the grades are right. RSU 2′s grades were mostly C’s but also included an A for Dresden Elementary and a D for Richmond Middle School, which missed receiving a C by 0.9 points.
“We figured that 0.9 is equivalent to one question on one assessment for one child,” Hammonds said. “We’re trying to figure out how much of that is truly a reflection of what kids know and the great work being done in the learning community.”
RSU 2 does not provide letter grades to its students and does not average different skills into a single grade. Instead, students receive a number indicating their level of proficiency on each skill or piece of knowledge they’re expected to master.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645
Paul Koenig — 621-5663