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LePage's school-grading system sparks sharp reactions

AUGUSTA — School administrators, legislators and the governor’s office weighed in on the propriety, usefulness and motives of a LePage administration ranking of schools in Maine by grades of “A” through “F.”5-2-alfond-goodale
The grades for elementary and middle schools — available online at www.maine.gov/doe/schoolreportcards — are based on reading and math standardized test scores; high school grades are based on standardized test scores and graduation rates — both of which irked Democrats.
"It's flawed with the methodology," said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, during a media sitdown in his office Wednesday.
"There's ways that we can rectify this flawed proposal," Alfond added, noting, "At any point in time, someone could put in an after-deadline bill" to "abolish or to end this."
"I see no willingness to work with us on this issue. Sen. Alfond has made it very clear that he opposes anything that the governor is doing," said Adrienne Bennett, press secretary to Gov. Paul LePage.
Alfond was briefed on the system prior to its unveiling Wednesday. Bennett said the governor offered to brief the Senate Democratic Caucus about the grading system, but was rebuffed.
"If they want to put in legislation to roll back info that's already existing or take back info from Mainers that's already existing, then there's something wrong with that," Bennett said.
"It's about transparency," Bennett said, arguing that the new system simply takes existing data and puts it into a report card. She likened the new system to an "open checkbook" website, regarding government spending.
Bennett said Democrats and other critics are engaging in a "blame and shame tactic" to derail the new school rankings.
"The governor here wants to help our struggling schools, we know the report card is not the whole story, it's a snapshot, but what we did is we used indicators that the federal government uses to hold us accountable," Bennett said.
Senator Seth Goodall, D-Sagadahoc, Senate Majority Leader, called the school report cards "really alarming," and Alfond condemned the "A" to "F" school grading system. Alfond said he met with Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, but said that during the private meeting, Bowen offered "all hot air" when asked for an explanation of next steps and how the rankings would lead to change.
"I would not want to be in the Department of Education over the next week," Alfond said, predicting a "flood of calls" stemming from confusion of what comes next.
"I've heard Republicans are not jumping for joy over this system either," Alfond said.
Alfond said LePage, who has frequently clashed with the Maine Education Association teachers union, was rolling out the grading system as a re-election tactic.
"To me, Gov. LePage no longer had anything to talk around education because he's bashed them for so long so he needed new material. This is the new material. This is for a re-election campaign," Alfond said.
Bennett said Democrats have jumped the gun by attacking the new system without finding out more about it.
"You don't see the Democrats wanting to learn more about it, you see them attacking right from the start, and that's not productive that's not going to help our students," she said.
"We think it's a very easy to understand system," Bennett said. "What you don't want to do is create a report card that's so complex that no one understands it."
Legislators of both parties and superintendents were briefed about the system, she added.
As an example of where improvement is needed, Bennett cited a high school in Maine with 21 percent proficiency in math, 19 percent proficiency in reading, but where nearly 90 percent of students graduate.
"We really hope parents will get involved and ask questions," Bennett said.
Maine is the 12th state to adopt this system, Bennett noted. Even New York state implemented a similar program, she said.
"We don't want this to be partisan," Bennett said.
School officials are reacting to the wide-ranging grades.
Charlie Haddock, principal at Windham Middle School, wrote, "Our grade from the state is a C. We gained 262.2 points which fell into the C range from 225 to 279. A value of B would have been reflective of gaining 280 points. For the last seven years, Windham Middle School staff, students, and administration have been energetically targeting instructional and learning goals to improve achievement. Our proficiencies six years ago were closer to the 52nd percentile in Reading and 57th percentile in Mathematics. Today, proficiencies are at the 75th percentile in Reading and the 64th percentile in Mathematics. Although we have accomplished increased achievement over time we are not satisfied as a school with these values. Without even considering the report card value, we remain committed to improving achievement and learning opportunities for all students."
Portland Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk issued a statement, which read in part, "The Maine School Performance Grading System, also known as the A-F school report card, uses a simplistic method to gauge school performance.  The grades are based primarily on a single, standardized test and they do not depict accurately the teaching and learning taking place in our schools. This entire school grading system is built around a political agenda, not a commitment to educational improvement.  It is ironic that at the same time that the state cuts funding and imposes added costs on school districts, it implements a system designed to shame schools, not help them."
Caulk said Deering High School was penalized one full letter grade for participation in the state assessment, falling short 2.3 percent of the 95 percent minimum.
"If approximately six additional students had participated in the assessment, Deering would not have been penalized," Caulk wrote. "Similarly, Portland High School was penalized one full letter grade for
participation in the exam; they were short .6 percent of the 95 percent minimum.  If approximately two more students had participated in the assessment, Portland High would not have been penalized."
The Maine Education Association stated that schools in wealthier communities in Maine fared far better under the grading scheme than schools in areas with higher indicators of poverty.
"Research shows that children on free and reduced lunch score lower on standardized tests," said Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, in a press release. "When we look at these letter grades given to our schools by the Department of Education, the school districts that scored the lowest are also the ones that have the most students on free and reduced lunch.  Since when did it become OK to tell poorer communities that their students are failing when they're faced with obstacles out of their control?"

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