Education Commissioner affirms State commitment to school improvement as alternate grading bill fails

AUGUSTA – Maine’s Education Commissioner says the demise of Democrat-led legislation that would have derailed the new State school report card system allows his Department to keep its focus fully on school improvement.

LD 1540, “An Act To Fix and Improve the System Used to Evaluate or Rate Public Schools in Maine,” was introduced by Democrats as a challenge to the LePage Administration’s new A-F school grades.

Sponsored by Education Committee chair Sen. Rebecca Millett, the bill would have abandoned Maine’s School Performance Grading System just weeks after it was rolled-out by Governor Paul R. LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen following six months of development by veteran educators at Maine DOE.

Instead, Democrats proposed a last minute plan of their own to have a not-yet-established task force and unspecified members of the public develop a new evaluation system based on undefined “accurate measures of student progress” and interviews with parents, members of school boards and teachers, but not students.

Their bill was deemed “dead” after failing to receive the votes needed for enactment on Thursday, the day before dozens of Maine DOE staff were convening to finalize a new Department operating model to better serve schools in their improvement work.

“While Democrats dithered over the last two months on how to undermine our sincere effort to hold schools accountable for student results, we had moved ahead to the real intent of this – helping schools improve student outcomes,” said Commissioner Bowen. “On behalf of Maine students and schools, I am pleased to see the knee-jerk reaction to reject our objective measurement system has given way to the reality that our schools need to improve and the acceptance that these letter grades have been a catalyst for that change.”

The A-F report cards present long-reported reading and mathematics assessment data – and in the case of high schools, graduation rates – in an accessible, easy-to-understand format for educators, parents and the public.

The grades were part of a larger improvement strategy by the Administration that also included the establishment of a school accountability office and $3 million in targeted improvement support over the next two years. Instead of collaborating with Maine DOE to develop those measures, legislative Democrats denied them and instead spent their time staging a press conference criticizing the State’s grades and attempting to create their own formula that would support the status quo.

Since the Administration released the first round of report cards, Maine DOE has intensified its improvement focus, including reaching out to every “D” and “F” school to better understand their challenges and developing a structured system of supports for all Maine public schools based on their needs.

The Department also provided a school improvement webinar series and is establishing an educator professional development task force, with Governor LePage convening his own teacher advisory committee.

Had it been enacted, LD 1540 also would have required that the new evaluation system not rate schools based on a statewide standard, but in comparison to others with similar socio-economics.

Commissioner Bowen rejected the bill’s premise that the State should sanction lower expectations for students from its low-income schools and questioned the message that sends to kids and parents in Maine’s less affluent communities.

“We knew the data would show students in poor communities struggle to perform as well as their counterparts in wealthier ones. But we intentionally chose a system that holds all schools to the same set of standards, because we don’t believe, as some evidently do, that a student’s destiny is determined by demographics,” Commissioner Bowen said. “Every student is worthy of a great education no matter their socioeconomic status. And that’s one of the many reasons why Maine must continue with the grading system we’ve developed and the improvement initiatives we’re implementing to fully leverage its findings.”

For more information about the Maine School Performance Grading System, visit www.maine.gov/doe/schoolreportcards.

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