State report card gives low marks to RSU 3 schools

RSU 20 schools on all ends of grading spectrum
By Ben Holbrook | May 05, 2013
Source: File Image

A statewide assessment of Regional School Unit (RSU) 3 gave low grades to a majority of the district's schools, but officials are dismissive of the findings.

The district, according to data published by the state, received an “F” for students in grades 3-8 in the areas of math and reading proficiency. According to the data, the district did not make any gains in the areas of math and reading proficiency, math and reading growth or growth in the bottom 25 percent for math and reading.

The district received a “C” for students in grade 11, with the only gains being in the four-year and five-year graduation rates. There were decreases in math proficiency, math three-year average progress, reading proficiency and reading three-year average progress, according to the state data.

Individually, Monroe Elementary received a “C,” Morse Memorial received an “F,” Mount View Elementary received a “D,” Mount View Middle School received an “F,” Mount View High School received a “C,” Troy Elementary received an “F,” and Walker Memorial received a “D.”

However, the grade assigned to Walker Memorial was initially believed to be incorrect because the state did not include data for the bottom 25 percent growth in math and reading. Because of that error, the grade would most likely have changed from a “D” to a “C,” which would mean it had achieved the same score as the majority of schools across the state.

Troy's grade, while it would move closer to a “D” would still most likely remain an "F," according to an email from Bill Hurwitch, director of the statewide longitudinal data system, to Superintendent Heather Perry.

Perry forwarded to the Republican Journal an email from Hurwitch that indicated neither school's score would change after further review of the data.

Unity Elementary was not graded, because the school is used for the district's Pre-Kindergarten program.

The RSU 3 district is comprised of 11 towns with an approximate enrollment of 1,465 students.

During a telephone interview with the Republican Journal Thursday, May 2, Perry said she was not surprised by the grades given to the schools, noting that the state's assessment used only New England Common Assessment Program Achievement testing scores to evaluate the elementary schools.

Samantha Warren, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, said the grade 11 assessments were calculated using SAT scores.

She said moving forward, the department anticipates being able to issue a new report card for high schools in the fall of 2013, with the new elementary school report cards being issued in the spring of 2014.

One of Perry's concerns regarding the report cards is the fact that the grades fail to take into account the socioeconomic factors in the district, which can impact student achievement scores. Citing national studies that have explored the relationship between poverty and student achievement, Perry said RSU 3's achievement scores are consistent with findings that schools with higher populations of poor students perform worse than schools with more affluent student populations.

About 70 percent of the students in RSU 3 qualify for the free- and reduced-lunch program.

In a statement posted on its website, the Maine School Management Association blasted the report card, stating the system was biased against poor schools.

"Using a benchmark of 50 percent or more of students being eligible for subsidized lunch the numbers show that 80 percent of the high schools that received an F were in the poverty category and 88 percent of the elementary schools. A similar pattern occurred with those that received D's. Conversely, no high-poverty high schools got an A and only 16 percent of high-poverty elementary schools received one," the statement said.

The report card for RSU 3 also drew criticism from Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, who said in a statement issued to media outlets that the grades will have a negative impact on the district.

“These grades undermine the good things our schools and students are doing,” Jones said in the statement. “Instead of helping and motivating our students, they may suffer negative consequences as a result of these grades.”

As a former educator, Jones went on to note that the data used to assign the grades was too limited and fails to present an accurate picture of school performance.

“These scores don’t take into account important programs that enrich our students’ lives and our communities. There’s no consideration for our strong arts, foreign language, athletics, music, civics and extracurricular programs,” Jones said. “They don’t take into account school safety or climate. And they certainly don’t take into account the important and positive role our schools play in our communities.”

Phil Shibles, chairman of the RSU 3 School Board, said he doesn't place any value on the state-issued report cards, because they fail to take into account the many factors that are at play in the district, especially in regard to economic conditions.

While he acknowledged that there are some parents who may be concerned about the grades, he said he believed the majority of parents would understand the report card was very limited in its scope.

"The validity is not there," Shibles said.

Because the low grades for some of the schools could be concerning to parents, Perry said she encourages anyone with questions to contact her or the schools to have a more in-depth conversation. Additionally, Perry said, one of the positives that can be taken away from the state's grading system is that it could start a conversation about how education can continue to improve. Perry acknowledged that the district, like others across the state, is aware that it needs to improve its educational system.

For that reason, Perry said, the implementation of proficiency-based learning is a way the district identified to improve student learning.

An additional benefit could be that the district receives funding from the state, although Perry said she remains skeptical about the money, as she "has yet to see a dime."

Warren confirmed that the state has earmarked funding, to the tune of $3 million, in the biennial budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage for schools that scored poorly on state assessments. That money would be made available if approved by the Legislature.

She noted that there have not been any discussions about penalizing schools that receive low grades.

In addition to providing funding, Warren said the department is looking at connecting schools that receive a low grade with schools that scored higher, with the intent the schools can work together to improve student learning.

“We want all of the schools to continue improving, whether they are an “A” school or an “F” school,” Warren said.

Like Perry, Warren said the goal of the report cards is to start a conversation about education and how student learning can continue to improve.

When asked if the report cards would incorporate more data in the future, Warren said the system would be “responsive,” but that people shouldn't anticipate sweeping changes. She said when the state was considering implementing the report cards as a means of assessing the schools, the Department of Education looked at what data other states use in their assessments.

Warren said some states incorporated parent survey responses into the data, but the department ultimately decided to keep the report cards as simple and accessible to the public as possible. She noted that some data, such as the percentage of students who graduate in four or five years, is provided on the department's website, even though that data didn't factor into the grade given to a school.

While the data the state used to assess RSU 3 are low, Perry said she strongly believes that the district has a higher standard for learning than any criteria the state uses.

“That is more important than the letter grade,” Perry said.

The story is similar in RSU 20

Individually, Regional School Unit (RSU) 20 schools ranked on all ends of the letter-grading spectrum, starting with Ames Elementary School in Searsmont, which received an A. The remaining schools in the RSU were ranked as follows: Captain Albert Stevens School in Belfast, "D;" East Belfast School, "C;" Edna Drinkwater School in Northport, "B;" Frankfort Elementary School, "F;" Kermit Nickerson School in Swanville, "C;" Searsport Elementary, "B;" Troy Howard Middle School, "C;" Belfast Area High School, "D;" Searsport District Middle School, "C" and Searsport District High School, "D."

Speaking to the grades his two schools received, Searsport District High and Middle School Principal Brian Campbell said the state's very use of the letter grading system demonstrates how that method of measuring school performance does not match the direction in which Maine schools are now moving.

Campbell said, for example, the state is now directing all Maine high schools to move towards standards-based learning in lieu of the traditional letter grading system. Instead of students getting credit for putting in seat time and memorizing facts and dates, a standards-based curriculum requires students to demonstrate they've met standards put forth in the Maine Learning Results in order to earn a diploma. Instead of an "A" or "B" grade, a student may receive a ranking of "meets" or "exceeds" the standard in a particular subject area. A student who may have received a "C" or a "D" would get a ranking of "partially meets" and interventions would then come into play to help that student meet the standard or exceed it later in the school year.

To that end, the State Department of Education wants all high school graduates to have proficiency-based diplomas by 2017.

"The state is using a traditional grading system while we're trying to move as a state towards a standards-based grading system," said Campbell Tuesday, May 7. "Personally, I'd rather receive a grade of 'partially meets' than I would a 'C' or a 'D'."

To view the report cards, go to http://dw.education.maine.gov/education/MEDW/Snapshots/SnapshotSelect.aspx.

Republican Journal reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or at bholbrook@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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