Waterville and Winslow high schools, average according to the state’s new grading system, are ranked among the top 12 in the state by a national magazine.

Officials at both schools and state education officials differ on whether that distinction means anything, however.

Waterville Senior High School ranked 11th and Winslow High School 12th among the 120 public high schools in Maine, according to U.S. News & World Report magazine.

Both schools were given a C grade earlier this month by the 2013 Maine School Performance Grading System.

The rankings are based on different criteria, particularly on graduation rates and whether socioeconomic factors have an impact on student performance. The two reports also take different tests into account: The U.S. News & World Report rank uses advanced placement tests, which not all high schools in Maine require; the state’s report used the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is required by all schools.

The magazine report also took socioeconomic factors into account, although most of the top 10 schools in its rankings are from communities considered affluent. It also didn’t take into account graduation rates.

Samantha Warren, director of communications for the state Department of Education, said the magazine used 2010-11 information from the state, and some of its criteria are things the state chose not to use in its own rankings.

“The measurements that they looked at are things that we don’t find meaningful and actionable,” she said.

But Eric Haley, superintendent of Waterville and Winslow schools, disagreed that the U.S. News & World Report ranking is any less accurate or reflective of how students are performing than the state system.

“You can take existing data and, depending on how you manipulate it, use it and present it, you can make it say whatever you want it to say,” he said.

Different criteria

The magazine’s 2013 Best High Schools rankings were based on four criterion: student-to-teacher ratio, college readiness, percentage of students who took and passed advanced placement tests in reading and math, and the percentage of those showed proficiency in the two subjects.

The state measured student achievement in reading and math; growth/progress in achievement and performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students, for elementary schools; and graduation rates, for high schools.

U.S. News & World Report produced the report in conjunction with American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that is one of the largest behavioral and social-science research organizations in the world.

The team analyzed 21,035 public high schools in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

The highest ranked Maine school was Maine School of Science & Mathematics, a magnet school in Limestone, followed in order by Yarmouth, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Wells, Camden Hills Regional, Scarborough, Kennebunk, Greely and Bangor high schools.

Warren said it’s important to look at the criterion. For instance, Waterville High school’s graduation rate is 72 percent and the state average is 84 percent, something the magazine didn’t take into account.

She also said that the state doesn’t take the wealth of a community into account when looking at a school’s performance. In the state assessments, some schools from poorer communities are high performing.

But Haley said the first criteria U.S. News & World Report listed for the ranking system is whether each school’s students were performing better than statistically expected for the average student in the state, given a school’s demographics.

He said schools get children at varying stages of readiness and what is important is where schools take them from there.

He said one of the impressive things about the performance of Waterville and Winslow high schools, part of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, is that most of the schools that scored higher are in more affluent communities.

Fifty-four percent of Waterville high’s students are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program; between 35 and 37 percent of Winslow high’s student are eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Validation

Warren said the intent of the state’s rankings was to engage the public and schools in conversations about how to improve.

“We’ve been very clear that this does not tell the entire story of the schools it’s a snapshot,” Warren said.

She emphasized that C is the state’s average ranking for schools.

“To be clear, a C is not a bad grade,” she said.

Haley agreed the state report was nothing new to the schools.

But the magazine rank is evidence that what the schools are focusing on is working.

Waterville school officials realize that scores in reading are lower than they should be and they are always working on strategies for improving reading proficiency, Haley said.

To have Waterville and Winslow neck-and-neck with more affluent schools speaks highly of the work being done, he said.

“This isn’t just high school stuff; we’ve really got to remember this is all of our schools getting these kids ready for high school.”

Waterville Senior High School Principal Don Reiter said that, given the negative publicity schools and teachers have been getting lately, the magazine’s report is a “nice validation for the teachers and students in the schools.”

And Winslow High School Principal Doug Carville said he believes the U.S. News & World Report ranking reflects the hard work Winslow schools are doing and the fact that they pay attention to what students need to succeed.

“Everybody’s paying attention to things that need to be done to address the needs of all students and keeping eyes open to the future, to know the kinds of things that we may be able to get involved in,” Carville said.

Carville, who is retiring at the end of the school year after nine years as principal, said the key is recognizing that schools must “meet all students where they are and provide for their needs.”

Haley said that, considering the lower socioeconomic backgrounds of many Waterville school students, a part of him asks why the high school is not an A school. He called himself a “big fan of value-addedness,” or what schools do help students learn and achieve as they go from lower to higher grades.

About 12 years ago, the Department of Education picked Waterville Senior High School as one of 12 Maine high schools that performed better than expected, given their demographics, Haley said. He was the school principal then and was invited to the governor’s residence to be recognized.

Carville said Winslow also looks at new ways of doing things. A 5-year grant from MELMAC Education Foundation, for instance, allows Winslow to have a college and career specialist on hand in the high school, and that will reap benefits for students, he said.

He emphasized that the goal of schools is to help produce life-long learners who are productive.

Amy Calder 861-9247
acalder@centralmaine.com