Grading the grades

Liberal antagonists to Gov. Paul LePage and his policies have been having a field day attacking the recently announced letter grading system for Maine schools.

A recent Bangor Daily News editorial labeled the system “uncompassionate” as well as “unreliable.” This was a rather fascinating claim to make, given that the entirety of the screed went on to say that the grading system accurately correlates student achievement with income levels and that research has shown wealthier students do better in school. So much for unreliable, I suppose.

Indeed, the “income levels correlate with letter grade results” seems to be the chosen outrage for the left in attacking LePage’s grading system. It has repeated ad nauseum virtually anywhere a left-leaning writer puts fingers to keyboard.

Yet every one of them admits the system is accurately describing achievement.  Impoverished families have fewer resources, less time, often fewer people in the home to help raise children, and as such those children have a more difficult time learning, and their performance on tests suffers. Children with wealthier families have more resources and more stability, so they do better.

A letter grade being assigned to a school may be simple, and have some drawbacks, but it is a lot easier to understand than most government evaluations, and, again, it accurately describes what is happening at those schools.

Curious that because the governor happens to be a Republican, the left is crying foul over accurate evaluation, measurement and transparent reporting of results by the Maine Department of Education. Why again?  Because we already knew that?

But did we? Was the general public really that informed about how these schools were performing just because some government actuaries had huge spreadsheets of demographic information that they poured over and packaged into government reports no parent on earth reads?

Seems to me a simple system to bring that “known” information to the public’s attention isn’t a bad idea.

Regardless, no one is more familiar with the follies of educational measurement than I am.  My wife is an elementary school teacher with teaching experience in three states (Maine, Maryland and Virginia) and has seen first hand when reporting goes haywire.

One of the schools she has taught in happens to be part of what I like to call a “fusion” neighborhood of Old Town, Alexandria, Va. Roughly half the school is populated by children from a predominantly low-income, African American part of the city, and the other half is populated by a very wealthy, predominantly white, gentrified part of the city.

These kids all go to the same school, and the results are what you would generally expect.  The kids from low-income neighborhoods struggle and perform poorly when compared to the kids from high-income neighborhoods, who generally perform very well.

This school used to be considered excellent and is now struggling to meet state standards. Yet the performance of the various groups has remained virtually identical from year to year.

All that has changed has been demographics. In recent years, there has been an influx of low-income students who now make up a greater proportion of the student population.  This changes the overall results that the school produces.

But has anything really changed? The same teachers are teaching, and all of the measured demographic groups are generally scoring what they have in recent years. So is the quality of the school really going down, or is it now being unfairly maligned?

Measurement and evaluation of schools is never as simple as any government bureaucrat would like to pretend.

So what is my point here? Is it that testing and measurement is good, or that it is bad?

The answer is both, honestly. It really depends on what is done with it.

Measurement needs to be less about robotic, automatic reactions on the part of the state and more about simply identifying areas to investigate, so that a real, localized, case-by-case response can be crafted.

As for LePage’s letter-grading system, I see no problem at all with it. If it identifies schools that have lower-income children in them who are struggling to perform, then I applaud it for quickly and easily bringing that information to the public’s attention so that something can be done about it.

What can be done about it, however, will have to be the subject of another column.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.