The number of Maine elementary schools that got failing grades for the last academic year nearly doubled, according to statewide school report cards released Thursday by the Department of Education.

Data from the department shows that 52 elementary schools – covering students through eighth grade – received F grades for the 2012-13 school year, up from 29 for 2011-12, the report card program’s first year.

Another 61 elementary schools received D grades for the 2012-13 school year, up from 48 a year earlier.

There was little change in grades for Maine’s public high schools, the majority of which received C grades, as they did for 2011-12.

The statewide A-to-F system, a hallmark of the education reform effort that Gov. Paul LePage launched last year, was sharply criticized by education officials, who said it stigmatizes schools in poorer communities and provides only a snapshot of progress in districts.

LePage’s opponents in this year’s gubernatorial race have latched onto the grades as a campaign issue, saying they will eliminate the report cards if elected. But the system has support from those who say the grades are a way to let parents gauge how well their children’s schools are performing.

State education officials said 93 of the 536 schools that were evaluated – 17 percent – improved by at least one letter grade on the latest report cards. However, 155 schools – about 29 percent – went down at least one letter grade.

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 another factor.

For the 2012-13 academic year, 40 elementary schools and 10 high schools got A’s from the state, while 53 elementary schools and 18 high schools got B’s.

C grades were given to 208 elementary schools and 58 high schools.

There were 48 elementary schools and 23 high schools that received grades of D.

A total of 52 elementary schools and 13 high schools received failing grades.

According to an analysis by the Maine Education Association after the report cards were released Thursday, 78 percent of the schools that got F grades receive Title I funds, designated to help schools with high numbers of children in poverty.

Education Commissioner Jim Rier said the report cards “provide yet another learning opportunity for us all.”

“Some will be quick to dismiss the grades and the department that delivers them, and I understand that,” Rier said in his weekly column in the department’s newsletter. “Others will use them exactly as we intended, seeing them as a snapshot for a school’s performance and a springboard for diving into the data to learn more about a school’s strengths and where there are opportunities for improvement.”

OTHER STATES SEE IMPACT FROM GRADING

Fifteen states have adopted A-to-F school grading systems, which started in Florida about 10 years ago.

In a study in 2004, David Figlio, a professor of economics and of education and social policy at Northwestern University, found that school grades in Florida drove up home prices in places with top-rated schools.

Jennifer Sanchez, a real estate agent in the Phoenix area, said homebuyers with children generally pay close attention to the best schools and try to buy homes in those districts. Arizona’s adoption of an A-to-F grading system made it easy for buyers to evaluate which schools they wanted their children to attend, she said.

“The school districts now work harder to not get a failing grade,” she said. “It keeps them accountable.”

Maine bases the grades for elementary schools on a point system, with 50 percent of each grade based on math and reading test scores, and 50 percent on progress over two years.

For high schools, 40 percent of each grade is based on testing, 40 percent is based on students’ progress over three years, and 20 percent depends on the graduation rate.

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 percent to 95 percent take the tests.

This year, the state included information on districts’ poverty levels and teachers’ experience, along with funding information, average daily attendance, and school and district contact information. None of that information was considered in assigning grades.

For elementary and middle schools, the grades incorporate results from the New England Common Assessment Program tests, which are given in the fall. Next year, the state will switch to the Smarter/Balanced assessment test, which will be given in the spring.

For high schools, the Maine High School Assessment is used in calculating test scores.

In a prepared statement, LePage said, “I want to congratulate these Maine schools who have stepped up to put kids first and who have seen student outcomes and opportunities improve as a result. … Maine schools can be the best in the country and if they keep up this good work and the public holds them accountable to that, they will be.”

EDUCATORS SAY SYSTEM A POOR MEASURE

Officials from the Maine Education Association, the state teachers union, were critical of the grades and said the organization has heard from many school leaders who say the system is too rigid. School officials have told the association that they have received little or no help from state officials to improve their grades from last year.

“One way to truly put students first is to celebrate their successes instead of focusing on challenges and pointing the finger at some as failures,” Lois Kilby-Chesley, a teacher who is president of the union, said in a prepared statement. “Gov. LePage’s arbitrary grading system is one more way he chooses to demoralize and demean Maine’s students and teachers.

“If we, as a state, are truly hoping to put students first, then we should invest in education and support public schools instead of giving them a letter grade that provides even ‘A’ schools with no real measure of success,” she said.

Superintendents, who received their schools’ report cards earlier this week, were quick to point out that the grades don’t necessarily paint a complete picture of what is happening in the schools, although they can be used to start discussions in the community about how to improve education.

“These grades use a simplistic and inadequate system for gauging school performance that relies primarily on a single, standardized test,” Portland Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said in a written statement.

Portland’s Hall Elementary School improved from an F to a D, and both Portland and Deering high schools improved from D’s to C’s.

In Biddeford, where the middle school dropped from a D to an F, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said there was little time to make changes that would reflect in this year’s grade. The district received its first grade four weeks before the end of the last school year, then students took the test that was used to calculate this year’s grades just four weeks into the current school year.

“This isn’t about what the kids did this year, it’s about last year,” he said, noting that the middle school has created a customized learning block and added a literacy teacher.

ELECTION TO DECIDE FUTURE OF GRADING

The future of the A-to-F grading system in Maine likely depends on whether LePage wins a second term in November.

“I believe with every ounce of conviction I can muster that every child in the state of Maine deserves what Theodore Roosevelt called ‘a substantial equality of opportunity’,” independent candidate Eliot Cutler said in a written statement. “That requires that schools in Maine are on an equal playing field, that children’s opportunity ceases to be a function of their zip codes or their parents’ incomes.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor, would eliminate the “degrading and demeaning A-F grading system,” according to his campaign spokeswoman, Lizzy Reinholt.

“We need to empower great teachers, principals and superintendents, encourage innovation and recognize that each school has unique opportunities and challenges,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “We should be supporting public education, not cooking up flawed grading schemes.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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