During graduation season, the smiles of high school seniors and their families reflect the community pride in graduates’ accomplishments as well as support for Maine’s public schools. In these happy moments, few — if any — are relying on the LePage administration’s Report Cards for Maine Schools, sometimes called the A-F grading system, to tell them about the quality of our local schools.

We know firsthand about our schools and students’ experiences in them. We also know that the achievement of Maine students compares well with students across the nation, making the A-F grading system puzzling, unnecessary and insulting.

Year after year, Gallup polls find that Americans are quite satisfied with their own public schools, while viewing public schools generally less favorably. Local findings mirror this trend.

A few years ago, the Fairfield area school board conducted an informal, but systematic, survey of parents of district school students. As a then-member of the board, I was happy to read the surveys: Families, for the most part, viewed their children’s schools quite favorably.

Test data show that Maine students perform well on measures of academic achievement when compared with students from other states. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered to a statistically random selection of fourth- through eighth-graders. Educators and informed policymakers hold NAEP results in high regard for their level of reliability and validity.

In the 2013 NAEP results, Maine ranked in the top 10 in the nation in various subject areas and grade levels tested. The state is among a cluster of near-the-top states whose differences in scores are insignificant.

Maine business leaders and educators typically compare Maine with other northeastern states, sometimes seeing Maine as lagging behind others in NAEP performance. While other northeastern states score higher in some NAEP categories, Maine has New England’s highest number of students eligible for the federal lunch program.

Poverty and student achievement are strongly correlated. Educators and informed policymakers know that a number of studies confirmed this. When it comes to student achievement measures “the single best predictor of performance is school poverty level,” wrote the authors of one recent study, “The Relationships Between School Poverty and Student Achievement in Maine” by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

The school’s poverty level must be held in mind when considering the fairness and usefulness of Maine’s school grading system. We must recognize the obscured inequity inherent in the school grading system — should we regard the school grades as having any significance at all.

School letter grades are part of the agenda of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s organization, Foundation for Excellence in Education. It extolls familiar market-based reforms, including the use of student test scores as a basis for school accountability. None of these market-based reforms, however, has led to higher rates of achievement as measured by test scores, as noted by historian of American education Diane Ravitch and others. This finding applies whether the “reform” is harder tests, higher standards, vouchers, school choice or offers of private tutoring at public expense.

The school grading system and other market-reforms have distracted educators from their students and narrowed school curriculum, without any improvement in student standardized test scores.

Should Skowhegan’s Bloomfield Elementary School Principal Jean Pillsbury have spent her time on tracking down why her school received an unexpected and erroneous “F” grade instead of the day-to-day orchestration of learning at her busy school? Would not our students be better served if the elective courses that once engaged them had not been replaced by a focus on the limited subjects measured in state assessments?

If we think of the families and graduates celebrating this month, it is easy to imagine that they appreciated the less measurable aspects of graduates’ school experience. They value the relationships with teachers and peers, the exposure to patterns of thought in different subject areas, and the model of dedication educators provided to the most vulnerable of the students in the schools.

When we think about the ways in which we want our schools to improve, we know more than to seek a change in the school’s grade. Rather, we think imaginatively about what our schools could provide if onerous restrictions were removed and if sufficient resources were available for all schools and communities in Maine.

Rep. Karen Kusiak, D-Fairfield, has worked as a classroom teacher, special education teacher and special education administrator. She holds a doctorate in education from the University of Maine and has been a teacher-educator for more than two decades.


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