Is it possible to sum up a student with one grade from a single class? Could you sum up a teacher’s effectiveness by just the standardized test scores of the students? Can you sum up a school in one letter grade? You can’t. Students are more than a test score. Teachers are more than test score. Our schools are more than a single letter grade. There should be a wide variety of metrics used to determine the effectiveness of a particular school, the success of a given student, and the educators that are on the frontlines.
The department states, “The goals of the Maine School Performance Grading System (A-F report cards) are to provide a starting point, with easy-to-understand and concise information showing how a school is doing, and to make sure that schools are accountable for explaining school performance to their communities.” Instead of being easy-to-understand, the grading has simply created more stress and anxiety amongst students, teachers and parents. With parents questioning to take his or her child out of a given school and faculty and staff morale at all-time lows due to this inadequate way of determining their job performance.
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The Maine Education Association, Maine Principal’s Association, Maine School Superintendents Association and Maine School Boards Association have all come out and endorsed my bill LD 392, An Act To Eliminate the Maine School Performance Grading System. This bill prohibits the Department of Education from using a school performance grading system that uses a single letter grade to measure school performance. Let me be clear in saying that I recognize some level of determining achievement is important to compare student success in and out of the classroom. The problem is defining it. I see a value in being able to take raw data of what we are doing in our schools and translating that into simple and easily understood terms that parents and taxpayers can disseminate and educators and students can use to make improvements. We should be able to critique our educational system, but we need to do it in a productive and constructive way; not in a way that demonizes and demoralizes our educators and students without a way forward. We definitely shouldn’t sugar coat the issues either. There are a lot of issues that need solving in our education system as a whole. Oftentimes it’s the system that gets in the way of the educators in the classroom who want nothing more than to see their students succeed. Standardized testing and the subsequent learning results box teachers into preparing students for a test, rather than being allowed creative freedom in the classroom to truly get our kids competitive for the global marketplace. That’s the conversation we should be having, not contemplating why certain schools have a particular letter grade.
Thornton Academy released the following statement pushing back on this so-called model for evaluation. Here is a sample:
None of the scores used to compile the “school report cards” is new. All data have been gathered previously and made available annually on the DOE website. Since schools are in the business of goal setting and assessing achievement, educators welcome comprehensive measures devised to support us in improving our craft. Unfortunately, by simplifying the complex interplay of factors that influences the overall performance of a school; the “A-F grading system” falls far short of being useful as a tool for improvement.
How were these grades calculated? Understanding the formula the DOE used may help to clarify our objections. Performance on standardized tests determines 40 percent of the grade. Another 40 percent is determined by school-wide changes over time in those same test scores. For high schools, the graduation rate determines the final 20 percent. Are test scores really four times more important than earning a diploma? Assigning 80 percent of the formula to standardized test scores places inordinate emphasis on a three-and-a-half-hour period in a student’s high school experience.
Correlation between standardized test scores and success in life is limited. Test scores may drive decisionmaking in some educational systems, but independent schools like Thornton Academy take a wider view. As a community of educators, we use test scores to inform rather than direct our practice, integrating core skills of reading and math, which standardized tests assess, with more broad-based academics like science, technology, history, foreign language, civics, and the arts, none of which is assessed by the standardized tests used by MDOE in developing our report card.
Another level to this issue is what happens or doesn’t happen once these grades are passed out. There is limited-to-no support given to low-performing schools to improve their grade. What’s the point of grading if you don’t have the support structure in place and advice to do better. After speaking with several administrators, educators and staff in my school district, everyone seems to believe the state is providing little to no assistance after the grades get distributed. The only thing I could identify in measurable support was the fact that each year the Maine Department of Education names schools to the School Improvement Grant eligibility list. The schools meet a series of detailed criteria, established by federal guidelines, and have experienced below average proficiency and growth on state testing. This is a federal grant used to turn schools around. Sounds great right? In 2013-2014, the Maine DOE named 13 schools to the School Improvement Grant eligibility list and named one school in South Portland as the sole recipient of the available $1.6 million funds. Only one school out of the 13 eligible for turnaround and out of all the schools in the entire state – received tangible assistance. The kicker is, this grant has been distributed since 2009, long before the state decided to arbitrarily grade schools on performance. Which leaves the lingering question, what support mechanisms are in place for schools base d on any grade? IfyougetaBwhathappens?Ifyougeta C what happens? And so on. Graduation rates are a part of the metrics used, but even that percentage has questions about what specifically is needed. So many of our young people feel disconnected from what they are learning in the classroom to the real world. It’s a challenge most schools face in trying to make those connections. Is that the reason for the graduation rate? It sure doesn’t spell that out in the Department’s grade or subsequent report.
Educators, administrators, staff, parents and even students alike don’t know how to read into what their score represents in terms of things they need to do differently. What are parents supposed to do when they see that grade? What about teachers? What recourse or action plan is created to help them implement best practices to improve a score that is already flawed to begin with? No one knows. If the department has an answer to this, I ask them to communicate that to the school districts directly because there is major confusion. It’s like being told by your boss that you are doing a bad job, without details on what specifically you did wrong and a lack of ways to improve. That’s not doing anyone, including our students, any good in trying to prepare for the challenges of a 21st century economy.
Parents are allowed to opt their child out of the standardized test and, as more and more do, our so-called results the state is measuring a large part of the school’s grade on will be representative of fewer and fewer students. This is going to create a major problem not just with grading an entire school on a small sample, but with the federal government. According to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald: “No Child Left Behind law requires schools to test at least 95 percent of students each year, so if too many opt out, the school could be considered a failing school even if test scores are high.”
All this bill does is eliminate one very specific and narrow way of grading schools. It doesn’t mean another evaluation couldn’t be developed. The department could simply offer recommendations for improvement, for instance, instead of issuing a letter grade or score. This spring, performance on the new assessment will be made available on the public data warehouse website without any single grades. Offering information with specific ways to improve rather than continuing an oversimplified and convoluted labyrinth of misinterpreted data points is more effective for everyone.
The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 12 to 1 against my bill. It is my hope to bring this to the House floor for a debate and make it clear the importance of passing such legislation in support of our students, teachers, and our schools. It’s time to start fresh. End this practice and re-evaluate what is most critical for our students to succeed.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term as state representative for Saco District 15. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Follow updates at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco