Portland urges the rest of the state to adopt its school ranking system instead

For two years now, education officials at the state and local levels have grappled over letter grades assigned to all of Maine schools by Gov. Paul LePage and his Department of Education.

The governor’s administration has touted the grades as a way for the public to quickly, accessibly gauge how their local schools are performing — A-through-F — and perhaps help motivate those schools to make changes to improve.

Opponents of the system, chiefly legislative Democrats and many local school officials, have argued the grading too heavily weighs standardized test scores and correlates so closely with poverty rates that the grades are just another way of publicly shaming the poor.

Emmanuel Caulk, superintendent of Portland Public Schools (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Emmanuel Caulk, superintendent of Portland Public Schools (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Leaders with Portland Public Schools find themselves in the latter group. On Thursday, when this year’s letter grades were released, Portland Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk released a statement criticizing the state’s system for the reasons noted in the previous paragraph, and saying the state should do more to help schools that serve poor students.

But he didn’t blast the idea of distributing a very public gauge of a school district’s performance.

In fact, he went so far as to say Portland has a better way of grading schools than the state government does, and argued his scorecard should replace the controversial grading system the LePage administration has been using.

Here’s what he said, in detail:

The Portland Public Schools believes in the importance of providing a thorough and transparent way of gauging how our schools are performing. That is why we developed the Portland Public Schools District Scorecard.

The scorecard was released for the first time in February and it will be updated every year. It provides statistical data on more than 20 indicators of student achievement, college readiness and postsecondary success, including standardized tests, the ACCESS test for English language learners, graduation rates, attendance, enrollment in AP and college classes, PSAT and SAT scores and participation in extended learning opportunities.

Much of the data is provided for the district as a whole and also for subgroups such as economically disadvantaged students, students with identified disabilities, students from different ethnic groups and those with limited English. Our scorecard also gauges community engagement and satisfaction with the district’s schools, using measures such as student and parent surveys.

The scorecard sets target goals for boosting achievement in one year and in five years. That gives the public an easy way to see how we are doing.

(For the grammar sticklers out there, Portland Public Schools is the proper name of the singular Portland school department, so when Caulk says “… Schools believes…” that’s technically proper subject-verb agreement. Imagine it as “… department believes…” and it helps.)

Henry Bibeau, 7, holds a sign outside Fred P. Hall School in Portland  last May at an impromptu support rally in the wake of the school's "F" rating by the governor. Hall received a "D" from the state this year. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Henry Bibeau, 7, holds a sign outside Fred P. Hall School in Portland last May at an impromptu support rally in the wake of the school’s “F” rating by the governor. Hall received a “D” from the state this year. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

There are some big differences between the Portland grading system and the Department of Education one. The Portland system — at least on its public face — doesn’t score at the building level, so parents could look at it and figure out how the citywide district is doing, but maybe not how their neighborhood elementary school is.

Also, the state system is much more blunt. While Portland is distributing a string of different numbers across a grid of different demographics, the Department of Education is offering one letter that aims to sum it all up.

Which perhaps boils this down to the key point of dispute: Can you wrap up something as complicated as the strength of a school in one letter grade?

Caulk says you can’t. And that the state and all the other individual school departments therein should consider using his scorecard instead of the now two-year-old system implemented by the Department of Education.

From his Thursday statement:

I invite other districts and the Maine Department of Education to adopt our scorecard as a way of sharing meaningful information about school performance with the public.

If you’re curious how Portland is doing based on the state’s grading, click here.

If you want to see how Portland is doing based on its own scorecard, flip through the document below.

Portland Public Schools District Scorecard

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.