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State Grades Most Maine Public Schools 'C' or Lower
05/01/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The grades are out on Maine's public schools, and most of them are getting a "C." Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Steve Bowen unveiled the state's new grading system at a midday press conference at the Maine State Library. The governor says giving letter grades will drive academic improvement by encouraging teachers, principals, parents and community members to hold schools accountable. Critics, though, say factors like student mobility and disparities in socio-economic status and parental involvement make it unfair to grade all schools by the same standards. Jay Field reports.

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Report card 2

Maine becomes the 14th state in the nation to give out letter grades to its public schools. New York City runs its own system too. In Maine, all schools got grades on students' year-to-year performance in reading and math on standardized tests.

Elementary schools were measured on the academic growth of all kids, over time, as well as the progress of the lowest-performing, 25 percent over the previous year. High schools were graded on three-year averages of improvement in reading and math, and their four and five-year graduation rates.

"Last 20 years, the scores of Maine kids have been relatively flat. In a hospital setting, a flatline is not a good line," said Gov. Paul LePage.

Seventy-five percent of Maine schools received a grade of C or worse. But LePage says the grading system isn't meant to be punitive.

"What I'm trying to do is get an uptick in our scores," he said. "And I'd like to see the scores grow by about 20 percent in the next couple years."

LePage says the grading system will help drive this improvement. He says it gives parents a clear, easy-to-understand snapshot they can use to hold their schools accountable, and begins a conversation about what it will take to get better.

"We need parent involvement. This will get it. It did in Florida. It did in Indiana. It did in North Carolina," he said. "People get more involved when they know how their schools are performing."

"I think there's this false perception that letter grades are clear and easy to understand," says Rebecca Jacobsen. Jacobsen has studied how changes in New York's letter grading system has influenced parental perceptions of school quality in the city. Jacobsen is an assistant professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University.

"They can be just as complex and difficult - to know the real meaning behind it - as any other grading scheme, whether it be a number or a proficiency rating," she says.

"We're looking at the Belfast Area High School's school report card, as released by the state Department of Education yesterday. All schools in the state in the state are responsible for improving from where they are. I mean, we continually engage in this dialogue," says Steven Fitzpatrick.

I'm sitting with Fitzpatrick, Belfast's principal, behind his desk, where Fitzpatrick has just brought up the report card on his white MacBook. The school, he says, has been working on several different improvement efforts in recent years, but the scores are still flat.

"So our school's grade is a D," he says, "and there's a number of factors that influence school achivement."

A huge one, says Fitzpatrick, is the socioeconomic make-up of a school's student body. Critics of the new grading system say it's biased against schools in the state's poorest, rural outposts. Rob Walker is executive director of the Maine Education Association.

"There's high rate of free and reduced lunch, and if you look at the school's that got the A's - they're in the wealthiest communities in the state of Maine," Walker says.

But LePage says socioeconomic status is too often used by schools as an excuse for low performance. He says the grading system will likely be tweaked over time. He says what's important is that it put more information in the hands of families.

But Michigan State's Rebecca Jacobsen says the state has to be willing to teach parents to sort through all the information. "It's not just about putting the data out there," she says, "but that we're really doing some public information campaigns to make sure there's resources to help parents and help the public understand, well, 'What is a C supposed to mean?'"

Maine education officials say they'll be working with individual schools to make sure parents get this kind of training.

Photo by Jay Field.

View the grades for individual schools.


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