2014-06-05 / Editorial

Beyond the Headlines

School grading has major flaws
By Rep. Justin Chenette

As a current legislator and former member of the Maine State Board of Education, the school grading system deeply troubles me. It’s embarrassing that we have a Department of Education that is more concerned with demonizing our teachers and students than actually trying to assist with the kinds of reforms needed to make our education system better.

Having Thornton Academy and Saco Middle School get Ds and other local schools get Cs is a slap in the face, not a hand of needed assistance. Schools, teachers, parents and even students don’t know how to take this information.

In a typical classroom, a student might be graded on tests, quizzes, homework assignments, participation, attendance, behavior, performances, etc. The key is variety. Students are graded on a variety of platforms when they finally receive their report card. Our school grading system runs counter to this idea; grading instead on just a few barometers with an overemphasis on standardized testing.

Not only that, but the Department of Education doesn’t provide the necessary assistance or financial support mechanisms to adequately address any issues a school may have. Common sense would dictate that if you give a school a poor grade, the very least the state could do is provide the school with goals, suggestions, ongoing support and financial backing to creatively address issues with students and teachers.

Instead we have a set of data that simply pits school against school, creates unnecessary stress for teachers and students, and puts a cloud of doubt in parents’ minds about the effectiveness of our quality schools.

What our local schools pride themselves on is the ability to offer a wide array of opportunities to students to find their unique niche. The Thornton Academy arts program is a great example. Not only is the program supported, but it is invested in to expand it which is unlike arts programs being cut back across the country.

When I was a high school student, I fully immersed myself in the extracurricular activities that my alma mater had to offer. In particular, I credit my involvement with the student-run educational station TATV Channel 3 with developing my passion for broadcast reporting and for holding leaders accountable journalistically. I subsequently went to college for it. While I was an honors student in my academic classes, my passion existed in the arts and afterschool programs. Sadly, that isn’t even a part of the school grading equation. Are we really going to leave out the students who are otherwise gifted in music, arts, sports and other important life interests because we want kids to be able to fill in bubbles? Student success and achievement cannot be measured by one myopic set of data or one test score. Filling in bubbles doesn’t equate to being prepared for the challenges of the real world.

Instead of being distracted by this grading system, we should have a wide-ranging conversation about reforming our education system to better reflect the necessities of the 21st century economy – reforms like my bill that became law to help infuse service learning as a graduation standard in high school. Reforms such as finally funding education to 55 percent on the state level. Reforms such as how to make college more affordable through programs that need to be expanded like Opportunity Maine. Or even reforms that help deal with the potential negative impacts of Common Core. The list goes on and on with the amount of needed policy changes to help teachers teach creatively, for students to learn necessary life and job skills, and expand the great work going on in our local schools. Our local school officials, educators and parents are trying to come up with ways of making our education system better. We just need a state government that backs them up rather than hampers their efforts.

If given the opportunity to go back to Augusta in January, I will put in legislation to eliminate the school grading system completely. As a new legislator, as the youngest legislator, as one of 13 members of the Legislative Youth Caucus, as someone who is consistently endorsed by the Maine Education Association, keeping our young people in the state for education, jobs and for life is a deep-rooted priority for me. Pitting our public schools against each other through the lens of a flawed grading system isn’t going to give an incentive to remain in a district with those so-called underperforming schools.

Locally, we have some of the best schools in the state. You wouldn’t know that based on the incorrect grades that were handed out. I’m not suggesting our local schools don’t have any room for improvement or that we should turn a blind eye to any problems in our schools, but to suggest our students are underperforming or that our teachers aren’t working hard enough is just not based in reality. Over the course of the next few months I encourage anyone who has suggestions for policy changes when it comes to reforming our education system to please reach out to me, so that I can help craft policy on the state level that best reflects what is needed on the local level.

To the students and teachers in our area, I am proud of you and you should be proud of the hard work you are doing each and every day.

Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco, owner of Chenette Media LLC, and is the president/founder of the Saco Bay Center for Civic Engagement. To connect with Justin, visit www.justinchenette.com, facebook.com/ justinchenette, or twitter.com/justinchenette.

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