Oddities, blind spots in LePage’s school grades

Gov. Paul LePage’s grades of Maine public schools remind me of the start and end of the semester.

Sometimes when I first meet a class, I tell them, all of you could get A’s. While that’s never happened, it’s possible – if everyone does the studying and works to earn the top grade.

Now, if this is an introductory course on American government, the most usual outcome is that final grades, graphed out, will fall in two peaks. There will be a cluster that goes from C+ to A, with most in the B range. And then there’ll be another cluster from F to C, with most around D+.  But, truly, they all could be A’s.

Students’ grades determine what the grade distribution looks like, not the other way around.

Yet LePage’s grading scheme turned that basic rule on its head. Before any school was graded, the Maine Department of Education decided how many would receive A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s.

This rather odd approach to evaluating schools led to strange headlines, like the one this paper ran: “Three-quarters of Maine schools at, below average, under controversial new state grading system.”

It would be just as accurate to write, “Three-quarters of Maine schools at, above average, under controversial new state grading system.” More important, it overlooks the reality that it’s true because the Department of Education made the grades fit that distribution.

Even stranger, the system used by the state has a built-in blind spot. You literally can’t see how well Maine is doing compared with other states.

And Maine is doing well. For instance, in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Maine’s scores in fourth and eighth grade are better than the nation’s in science, reading and mathematics. (In contrast, Florida, which somehow has become the governor’s touchstone for education policy, has scores that usually are below or just average in those fields. Florida’s eighth graders are always below average in math.)

Or look locally, at Bangor High School. This is a school with hundreds of kids on the math team, a team that regularly beats the state magnet school for science and math. For six consecutive years, a Bangor student won the state’s Stockholm Junior Water Prize. (This year’s winning research project examined the impact of an “estrogen-mimicking compound” from personal care products on fish, and the student will represent the state at the national competition.)

Based on an extensive assessment that used far more than the two test scores plus graduation rates used by the state, Bangor High earned the national designation as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. And U.S. News and World Report, which also eschewed a simplistic grading scheme, stated that Bangor was in the top 10 percent of all high schools in the country. You’d think if any high school in Maine would earn an A, it would be Bangor’s, but not so.

The oddities and blind spots of the grading scheme make me yearn for a world in which policy was based on quality analysis.

Beyond education, we’ve seen policy failures arising from flawed research. Two economists and Harvard University colleagues Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, who argued that high levels of government debt led to slow economic growth, were faced recently with a devastating critique. It turned out their findings were wrong because they left out data from some countries over particular years. Because policy-makers believed them – perhaps motivated by anti-government ideologies – budgets were cut, leading to fewer public sector jobs and the slowing of our national economy. 

Rigorous health care research, comparing those newly able to access care through Medicaid to those who couldn’t, shows gains in physical, mental and financial health. Yet, in Maine, ideologues have claimed that expanding Medicaid would hurt people who would gain access to health insurance.

Since people have different values, proper research wouldn’t mean that we’d all agree about our situation and what policies to adopt. For instance, Maine’s chief executive worries a lot about the state’s dependence on the federal government, while showing little concern for people with undiagnosed, untreated cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

But rigorous research helps us begin with a rational basis, so we can avoid blind spots and determine how to improve student learning, the economy or people’s health.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.