“Incredible Opportunity”?

Sumner Memorial High School and Deer Isle-Stonington High School have been identified by the state Department of Education as two of Maine’s 10 “persistently lowest-achieving schools.” That designation was not based on any sort of comprehensive, on-campus examination of the schools in question. No first-hand look at the schools’ programs or the interaction between teachers and students. No consultations with students, parents or other members of the communities involved.

Such a pejorative designation is based primarily on three years of reading and mathematics scores on SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) administered to Maine’s 11th grade students.

The SAT, as most educators know, never was intended for use as a general assessment tool for an entire school population. This newspaper observed, in an editorial on Jan. 4, 2007, that readiness for college, which is what the SAT was designed to measure, is not — and should not be — the primary measure by which the adequacy of a student’s high school education is judged. Bowdoin and many of the nation’s other top colleges have abandoned the use of SAT scores for admission purposes, saying that the test is too narrow an assessment tool.

But Susan Gendron, Maine’s determined commissioner of education, somehow was able to secure federal approval several years ago for use of the SAT as Maine’s primary assessment device for all high school students. That change was in keeping with Gendron’s misguided notion that every high school graduate in Maine should be qualified for, and aspiring to, college or other post-secondary education.

Now the results of her disastrous experiment are coming home to roost.

The fact is that not every high school graduate intends to pursue additional years of education at a college or university. That is particularly true here on the coast of Maine. The fishing industry may be in decline but lobstering  still is very much in existence. There are local high school students who already own their own boats and lobster traps and are earning as much, or more, than many adults in the work force. For those students, the SAT is an irrelevant and bothersome exercise that simply won’t be taken seriously. Nevertheless, to the state and the feds, that measurement represents the sum and substance of that student’s achievement in high school.

As is so often the case, the bottom line in all of this turmoil is money. Gendron is making a grotesque attempt to portray the demeaning designations foisted upon the Sumner and Deer Isle-Stonington schools — and their principals, teachers and students — as an “incredible opportunity.” That’s because those lowest-achieving schools become eligible to share as much as $12 million in federal school improvement grants. But mark this: the school systems involved must agree to replace the two principals involved — Michael Eastman at Sumner and Todd West at Deer Isle-Stonington. From the state’s perspective, somebody has to take the blame for all this failure, no matter how badly their professional reputations may be wrongly damaged.

When it comes to challenging the state/federal designations of the two schools, the contrast in attitudes between Regional School Unit 24, in which Sumner is located, and School Union 76, which includes Deer Isle-Stonington, is striking.

Superintendent Bob Webster of Union 76 asserted that any option including West’s dismissal would be unacceptable. “I don’t care how much money they’ve got,” he said. He also cited a wide range of positive student outcomes already taking place at Deer Isle-Stonington, including a recent glowing accreditation report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. “it doesn’t make sense to use SAT scores to judge the success of a school,” he said.

Superintendent Bill Webster of RSU 24 has shown no public inclination to challenge the state/federal assessment of Sumner nor did he voice support for Eastman’s retention as principal. In a letter to parents, Webster acknowledged that “so many at Sumner have been working very hard and making important progress with students,” but he added that “an insufficient number of students are achieving the appropriate level of success” and said “we will support this initiative with enthusiasm.”

It is a tragic reflection on what’s happening to our society that individual reputations can be damaged or destroyed and educational institutions labeled as failures at the whim of a bureaucracy with a “one size fits all” solution to problems. Much pain and turmoil have been caused by a handful of test scores generated with an instrument not adequate for the job at hand.

This identification of supposedly low-achievement schools is part of Maine’s “Race to the Top” applications. Throwing dedicated educators under the school bus along the way suggests we’re taking the wrong direction. So much for an “incredible opportunity.”

This Editorial was originally published in the March 18th issue of The Ellsworth American.


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