IN HIS JAN. 28 COLUMN, Rep. Matthew Pouliot attempts to make a case for the Maine School Performance Grading System, the statewide A-F grading system for schools implemented last spring by Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Department of Education, primarily by citing Indiana and Florida as shining examples of everything that is right with such systems.
Pouliot, an Augusta Republican, correctly claims that Indiana and Florida made larger gains than Maine on recent administrations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide assessment often used to compare states, but he neglects to mention that, by eighth grade, students from Maine outperform students from both of those states.
This is analogous to a teacher scolding a student for consistently earning 90s on his tests because he is not improving as much as the student sitting next to him who earned an 80 on his last test, up from a 60 on the test before. It is obvious that the better students perform, the less room there is for large gains.
Unfortunately, this fact has not stopped many politicians from running down Maine students and educators.
Pouliot also is correct when he notes that statewide grading systems often are politically motivated and manipulated. In fact, to find evidence, we need not look any further than Indiana and Florida. As the superintendent of Indiana’s schools, Tony Bennett instituted an A-F system, but when a charter school founded by one of his top political donors received a “C,” Bennett changed it to an “A,” writing “anything less than an âA’ for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.”
Bennett then became Florida’s commissioner of education and revamped that state’s system so that the number of schools receiving an “F” doubled, and the number of schools receiving an “A” was cut nearly in half. Bennett resigned his Florida post last summer when these scandals came to light.
Maine’s system has not been able to escape the influence of politics, either. Intervals between letter grades are not equal because the state Department of Education based them on a bell curve, a method in which the distribution of grades is predetermined by placing cut scores wherever one wishes. This method results in a predetermined number of schools receiving a certain grade.
The choice of data included in the calculation also is problematic. Grades for high schools are based largely on SAT scores, so the results should not be a surprise. It has been written many times by many people that the best indicator of how students fare on the SAT is their zip code. If a student lives in an affluent area, his or her SAT scores generally will be higher than students from less-affluent areas. The percentage of students eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program for the 10 high schools that received an “A” is in the single digits or teens, while the state average is more than 46 percent.
Politicians and the leaders of the Department of Education also have been pretty clear about the purpose of the grading system. Last April, the then-commissioner of education Stephen Bowen, who praised Tony Bennett as a “trailblazing education leader” even after we learned about the aforementioned scandals, provided legislators with a document proposing $3 million for “funding to put an Office of School Accountability into place to parallel the legislation we’ll advance empowering the state to take over failing schools.”
The next day, David Connerty-Marin, then-spokesman for the department, claimed the proposal was a mistake, and there were no criteria to determine which schools were failing.
The Maine School Performance Grading System, however, provides such criteria.
While discussing the grading system at a press conference last May, LePage, a withering and relentless critic of Maine schools, 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 is not hard to connect the dots and surmise the kind of help the governor wants to provide.
A lot of good work is going on in Maine schools. All you have to do is visit your local school or peruse its website to find examples. At the same time, we know we can improve our practice and continuously strive to do so.
The bottom line is that schemes like the statewide A-F grading system for schools are nothing but politically motivated distractions from our improvement efforts.
Donald J. Reiter is principal of Waterville Senior High School (a “C” school) and president of the Maine Principals’ Association.