About one in six schools statewide show a letter grade improvement on statewide report cards that will be released next Thursday, state education officials say.

The A-through-F grading system was launched last year, and immediately drew criticism from educators and others who said letter grades are too simplistic for measuring a school’s success. LePage administration officials and supporters of the system said they were an easy-to-understand benchmark, and while they agreed that a single grade cannot sum up an entire school and its community, the grades are a way to get people engaged.

In the past year, 110 of the state’s 600 public schools made a letter grade improvement, although exact scores for schools have not yet been released, officials said Thursday. Officials did not say whether any schools would get lower grades this year.

Individual schools will receive their grades Tuesday, and all of the grades will be released on the Department of Education’s website Thursday.

“All of us want the best schools for our students, and though we might not all like what the grading system reveals, we must commit to improve upon its findings rather than ignore or excuse them,” Education Commissioner Jim Rier said in a statement.

The commissioner will visit a series of schools next week that all received a C or lower last year. He will visit Rose M. Gaffney School in Machias and Narraguagus High School in Harrington on Monday, Walker Memorial School in Liberty on Tuesday, Cony in Augusta on Wednesday, and South Hiram Elementary School in Hiram and Narragansett Elementary School in Gorham on Thursday.

All of those schools improved by at least one letter, officials said.

Rier said he doesn’t think any grade changes this year are a direct result of the one-year-old grading system, but he’ll visit improving schools “to learn what these schools are doing to inspire students and raise achievement levels.”

Fifteen states nationwide have adopted the report card grading system, which was first launched in Florida about 10 years ago. In general, the grades are based on standardized test scores in math and English, students’ growth and progress, and the performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students. For high schools, graduation rates are a factor.

In Maine, the grades for elementary schools are based on a point system, with 50 percent of the grade based on math and reading test scores, and 50 percent on progress over two years. For high schools, 40 percent of the grade is based on testing, 40 percent on progress over three years, and 20 percent on graduation rates. For all schools, there is an automatic F if fewer than 90 percent of students take the tests, and a full-grade penalty if 90 to 95 percent take the tests.

Last year, about a dozen schools got automatic F’s.

One of the biggest criticisms of the report card system was that it did not indicate a school’s poverty level, measured as the percentage of students that qualify for free and reduced lunch. After the first round of report cards were issued, the Maine Education Policy Research Institute found that poverty level and teacher experience were the biggest factors affecting student success.

This year, the state will include both poverty level and teacher experience on the report card, along with funding information, average daily attendance and school and district contact information, although these will not be considered in assigning grades.

The additional information will “help the public and education leaders easily identify school strengths and weaknesses and make comparisons that will drive the improvements Maine kids deserve,” Rier said.

In the past year, department specialists have worked with the lowest-performing schools, from providing professional development sessions and webinars to sending in consultants and adding education resources. The state also added resources on its website, including a Center for Best Practice page that includes videos and case studies from successful schools.

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said she remains a staunch critic of the grading system. She said she’s also heard from more than a dozen schools that received low grades last year that do not feel they’ve gotten adequate support or help from the state.

That said, the outcry last year over the grades, particularly at some failing schools, “really activated the parents,” said Kilby-Chesley, recalling how dozens of parents held a rally to support teachers at Hall Elementary School in Portland after it got an F grade.

“I honestly believe the community members know how their schools are doing,” she added. “If you go in and the school is running like clockwork and they get an F, then there’s something wrong with the F, not with the school.”

The grades are assigned to all public schools, including charter schools and the state’s 11 town academies. They will not be used to rate private schools or career and technical schools. Some charter schools are not included yet, because two years of data is required for elementary schools to be assessed, and three years of data for high schools.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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