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Despite good grades, some school chiefs criticize state report card

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Despite good grades, some school chiefs criticize state report card

FREEPORT — The Falmouth, Yarmouth and Chebeague Island school departments, Regional School Unit 5, and School Administrative District 51 generally received high marks in the first statewide report card for elementary and high schools.

The grades from the Department of Education were scheduled to be announced Wednesday. The department shared the grades with The Forecaster in advance of the announcement.

The evaluations of 600 Maine schools, using an A-through-F grading system based on proficiency and growth in reading and math, are supposed to provide greater transparency and a "clear, concise benchmark" for the public to evaluate schools, according to the plan announced by Gov. Paul LePage in his State of the State Address in February.

All elementary and high schools in Falmouth, Yarmouth, Chebeague and SAD 51 received grades of A.

In RSU 5, the state gave B grades to Freeport High School and Freeport Middle School; Mast Landing Elementary School in Freeport and Durham Community School received C grades, and Pownal Elementary School received an A.

While in general, area schools scored higher than the C average, school superintendents criticized the grading system and said, although the grades are flattering, the evaluation system is flawed.

"We are heartened by the grades we received, but I'm concerned with the overall model of the program evaluation that is relying on this data and not other inputs," Robert Hasson, the SAD 51 superintendent, said. "I'm concerned for the effect this will have on students and educators across the state."

LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen were expected to announce the grades at a press conference Wednesday, after The Forecaster's deadline. Department officials have said in previous statements that the goal of the grading system, called the Maine School Performance Grading System, is to empower "parents and community members with easy-to-understand information about their local school using existing data."

Report cards were sent to school superintendents Monday.

The grading is on a bell curve, which means there are as many A grades as there are F grades, and a high concentration of C grades.

Falmouth Superintendent of Schools Barbara Powers said this approach is "fundamentally unfair."

"It's an antiquated way of looking at achievement," Powers said. "If you have a bell-shaped curve, there's always going to be people not making it."

Powers was encouraged to see the growth measurement, in addition to proficiency, but said the calculation would be more fair and accurate if schools were asked to meet a standard threshold.

"If half the grade is proficiency, we already have a leg up because we have low, free and reduced lunch, highly educated parents able to support their kids, and we're fortunate enough to have the resources to have exceptional opportunities for our students," she said, noting the grading system does not consider socioeconomic status of school districts, which disadvantages poor schools.

"This way, we are assured to have D and F schools and that's fundamentally unfair and not progressive," Powers said.

Schools are graded based on two general measurements: student proficiency and growth from math and reading tests.

In grades 3-8, the proficiency measure for math and reading is calculated from student achievement levels of "proficient, or proficient with distinction."

The growth measurement is based on student improvement, year to year, collectively for the school. This measurement is also broken down into how much improvement was seen for students who scored in the bottom 25 percent on reading and math tests.

The high school grades are based on 11th-grade student proficiency and progress.

The progress is measured on a three-year average from 2009-2011 for reading and math test scores, and the number of students who graduate in four and five years.

All schools are also required to meet a 95 percent assessment participation rate. Participation of less than 90 percent results in an automatic F, with grade reductions for schools below 95 percent.

The grading system is modeled on a similar evaluation system instituted in Florida, which critics say is aimed at putting a greater burden on public schools and teachers, while favoring private charter schools.

About a dozen other states have statewide evaluation systems, according to the state DOE, but Maine's is nearly identical to Florida's, except the latter accounts for free and reduced lunch and the number of minority students.

Powers said the grading system also "flies in the face" of LD 1422, which was approved by the Legislature last month with bipartisan support and sets standard criteria for Maine school achievement, a move away from grade averaging.

Yarmouth Interim Superintendent of Schools Ron Barker said he commends his administrators and staff for receiving a high grade, but wished the DOE had asked for input from the schools.

"It came about very quickly and there was not a lot of involvement from people in the field," he said. "Normally, people buy into something if there's collaboration."

Barker, who is a longtime schools administrator and former head of the Maine School Management Association, and works as an area representative in the Admissions Department at the University of Southern Maine, said he has seen "good things happening" at all Maine schools.

"I hope schools are commended throughout the state," Barker said. "Is there more work we can do? Absolutely. But there needs to be a balance and the state should be complimenting schools on the good things they are doing.

"I do feel badly for some of the schools around the state that might not score as well," he continued. "I hope that the department will work to help these schools, if the intent was to be helpful, I hope they follow through on that commitment."

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.