How we measure the success of a school can have a profound impact on a community. Potential residents and businesses alike tend to use online school information to make decisions about which communities they choose. But are current measures giving the public the full picture of what a school can offer students, families, and communities?
Many state and national school assessment systems rely heavily on standardized test scores to make their determinations about the success of schools. The federal government also attaches millions of dollars in funding to the process by using state assessments to identify schools that need support. This reliance on limited data points does a disservice to schools and students.
“Standardized tests can help us design interventions for individual students and help us examine our overall programming, but one test does not paint the entire picture of our schools or our students,” said Superintendent Carl Gartley. “Our students learn differently, and they demonstrate success differently. Any teacher you ask could name several students for whom a standardized test is not going to show their strengths. These students deserve to be represented when we talk about our schools.”
Current measures of success do not highlight a school’s strong arts or media program. They give no acknowledgment to the special education and intervention programs that the school provides beyond the performance of students with disabilities on assessments.
The Maine Department of Education is currently working to develop a more well-rounded system. “The first step is to get the conversation going statewide with students, teachers, parents — all of the stakeholders,” said Mary Paine, Director of the Commissioner of Education’s Office of School Success. “We need to develop a more complete set of indicators of success by identifying common values, asking the public what matters beyond the indicators that are being used currently.”
To that end, a team from the DOE, led by Paine, came to RSU 18 in mid-May to meet with small groups of students and educators across several grade levels. They spoke with about 10 students per grade level and a group of educators from across the district and from a variety of content areas. The conversation was focused on what is working in the district — what makes our schools successful.
Even given the small number of participants in this first round of conversations, common values emerged in RSU 18, such as the importance of relationships. Students spoke of strong connections with their teachers, and teachers spoke of good working relationships with their administration. Safety was also mentioned, particularly by the students. They said they felt safe both within our buildings and walking to school. Teachers mentioned the importance of collaborative time. Healthy social settings were also valued.
These conversations, along with a community dialogue in RSU 38, will be used to inform the development of a flexible framework that can be used locally and by the state to portray authentic, relevant indicators of success based on the statewide and local conversations.
“It needs to be authentic and we want it to ensure that the indicators are backed by evidence,” said Paine. She believes that it does not necessarily need to come down to numbers, or at least not the usual numbers. “One goal of the statewide conversation is to gather ideas about what the framework might look like. How do we capture and provide evidence for qualitative measures such as strong relationships, community involvement, unique programs and opportunities that are provided to students, or strong career and technical skills programs?” Paine says that even in the early stages of the conversation, these are the kinds of things that matter and that we need to find a way to communicate.
“The questions really focus on what people look for in a successful school and whether those features exist in their district,” said Paine. The resulting data would not only provide a more complete picture of a school for state and national reports but would also provide school districts with valuable information about what is working and what they might work to improve.
School rating websites are already making an effort to change their assessment models. Paine hopes that if the state can supply them with more accurate and complete information, it gives them something relevant that they can use. Great Schools.org, considered to be one of the better school ranking sites, lists Maine as one of the states that does not “have sufficient information to generate a Summary Rating.” In those cases, the site defaults to test scores as their overall rating. This makes this project doubly important for Maine schools to be able to provide an accurate reflection of what our schools’ offer. But Paine cautions, “We in no way wish to generate another system of rating and ranking. That is the antithesis of public school.” The added benefit to the new approach is that it also moves the dialogue away from ranking and comparison which can create false impressions.
“When it comes to bringing people to our state, cities, and towns and encouraging them to stay, we couldn’t do anything more important than to make sure that the real value to be found in our schools is seen and heard,” said Paine in recent material focusing on the project.
The DOE plans to come back to RSU 18 in the fall and to open the conversation up to community members. “We also want to talk with more students,” said Paine, “their voices are incredibly important.”