May 2, 2013

Some parents find grades useful; others are skeptical

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Local parents said on Wednesday that the new report cards and letter grades for schools are useful, but school and public officials were skeptical that the grades really reflect the quality of a school.

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Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen unveiled the state's new A-F grading system on Wednesday May 1, 2013 at the Maine State Library. Gov. Paul LePage said the grades would make schools accountable.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Many parents interviewed Wednesday said they would look at the grades schools received when choosing a place to raise their children.

Rachel Gagne, 36, of Augusta, said she definitely would look at the schools' grades if she was looking to move somewhere else, but the C grade Cony High School received wouldn't cause her to relocate.

"The first thing you look at is the school," Gagne said about moving to a new area.

Lisa Buzzell, while picking up her fourth-grader daughter from Winthrop Grade School, said the school's A shows it has improved since she went through the system.

"I think it's good for the school because I think a lot of parents look into that for where they live," said Buzzell, 30. "It's important to send your kids to the best schools."

Paula Bourque, a parent of two students in Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11, said the grading system could have negative consequences for schools and communities if parents use the grades at face value to decide where to live.

"I'm kind of frustrated that it's being presented that it's going to give parents and communities more information about a school," said Bourque, who also is a literacy coach for the Augusta schools.

Instead, she said, it's misleading and confusing because some will take it at face value without looking into what led to the score or its limited scope.

"Unfortunately, people are going to make a decision on where they lived based on what's readily available, and this is readily available," Bourque said.

Bourque also said she worries that schools will be more concerned about boosting their grades than educating students with the skills they need.

Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, has similar concerns. She said it's only a snapshot of standardized test scores, but parents and taxpayers will see it inaccurately as an overall assessment of education at the schools.

"This has been distracting, costly and not well thought out," Grant said. "At best, it's a waste of time."

At worst, she said, it's going to be damaging to the public's perception of schools, school morale and the students' esteem for their school.

Grant said, as an example of how the grades don't show accurately what's being done in the schools, RSU 11's Gardiner Area High School would have a C instead of a D if two more students had taken their SAT examinations.

She said she would have the same opinion no matter what grades the schools in her district were awarded.

"I would be just as upset if we got an A because that would give us a false sense of security and complacency," Grant said.

Gardiner Area High School students performed well enough on tests to earn the school a C, but only 94.5 percent of students participated. Because state and federal authorities require 95 percent participation, the school was docked a grade and fell to a D.

In March, RSU 11 Superintendent Pat Hopkins sent a letter to parents celebrating the gains that RSU 11 students have made on standardized tests in recent years, in some cases surpassing state average scores.

On Wednesday she sent home another letter, this time explaining the district's middling grades, which she said don't reflect improvements made in the schools.

"I don't think a simple grade accurately reflects the day-to-day work that's going on in the classroom," Hopkins said. "That work is just far more complicated than a single letter grade can provide."

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