Inside Maine’s Race to the Top application, Part 4


The last part of the first section of Maine’s Race to the Top application relates to how well the state has done “over the past several years” at improving student achievement and closing student achievement gaps. The state’s response to this section is not only disappointing, but slightly dishonest.

As I pointed out in a recent paper on the state’s chances of winning a Race to the Top grant, Maine has seen very little student achievement growth over the past decade or so, despite plunging class sizes and dramatic increases in per-pupil spending. From 1997 to 2007, Maine’s average per-pupil spending rose from just over $6000 to more than $11,000, while the average number of students per teacher dropped from 13.5 to about 10. We’re spending more and more to educate fewer and fewer kids, yet achievement growth has been flat in recent years.

The state could have handled this reality in one of two ways. They could have admitted that recent efforts to improve student outcomes have largely failed and used that failure to argue for a bold and comprehensive reform effort, or they could have done what they did do, which is paper over the lack of achievement growth in the hopes that nobody at the U.S. Department of Education would notice.

Part A(3) of the state’s RTT application starts off, for instance, with a fantastically truncated overview of Maine’s recent “reform efforts,” which began, the application claims, with the adoption of Maine’s Learning Results in 1997 and the beginning its “Comprehensive Assessment System” in 1995. According to the application, those two initiatives have “driven education reform and educational achievement in the state.”

Okay, but what has happened since then?  According to the application, almost nothing. There is no mention of the failed Local Assessment System, for instance, and, other than a quick reference to the development of the state’s longitudinal data system, no mention is made of any other initiative since the enactment of Learning Results. The state does claim that “as a world leader in innovative and effective use of technology in the classroom” it has “turned the notion of distribution of effective teachers on it head,” but declines to provide any data or specifics to support this rather vague and questionable claim.

The state goes on to describe how well students have been doing according to the state’s own assessment system, though it notes that “standards were reset in 2007,” making data prior to that time “not directly comparable.”

There is some confusion in the application on this point. In the application text, the state claims that standards were reset in 2007, but in the appendix to the application, where the actual assessment scores are listed, it is claimed that this standards “reset” took place in 2006. The state Department of Education’s website concurs with the appendix, stating that “2005 – 2006 MEA data are based on new 2006 achievement standards and are NOT comparable to 1999-2005 data.”

The actual year this happened is important because what the state neglects to say is that the standards “reset” that did occur made the state’s assessment tests significantly easier.  During the 2004-2005 school year, for instance, 44 percent of 8th graders were found to be “at or above proficient” in reading, as were 53 percent of 4th graders. The very next year, after the resetting of standards, 59 percent of eighth graders were found to be “at or above proficient” in reading, a 15 point increase in one year, as were 61 percent of 4th graders.  The Washington DC-based Fordham Institute concluded in a 2007 report that “one could fairly say that Maine’s reading and math tests were much easier to pass in 2006 than in 2004.”

The state is careful in the RTT application to report post-reset scores only, but in the name of full disclosure, it should have explained that the tests employed from the reset point forward were easier than the pre-reset tests.

The state was forced to be a bit more forthcoming with regard to NAEP scores. The National Assessment of Educational Progress is conducted nationally by an agency of the U.S. Department of Education, and the news for Maine is nothing to brag about. While math scores have risen slightly over the past decade, as have writing scores for 8th grade, reading scores at both the 4th and 8th grade level have actually dropped, as have science scores. The state was also forced to acknowledge that “large achievement gaps exist” between students with disabilities compared to those without, and between students eligible for Free and Reduced Price Lunch and those that are not. “These gaps,” the state reports glumly, “have remained steady over time.”

The last part of this section of the application is devoted to graduation rates, and again the state is, in my mind, less than candid about the nature of Maine’s schools today. The state cites a graduation rate of 80 percent, which is actually down from previous years because, the state claims, its reporting of graduation rates is more accurate. Let’s hope so. Education Week’s new Diplomas Count report, out earlier this month, put Maine’s graduation rate at 77.6 percent for 2007, up, but barely so, from the 74.8 percent they calculated it to be 10 years earlier. This would seem to indicate that even the reportedly more accurate graduation rate the state is currently claiming is almost certainly still too high.

The state seeks to assuage potential federal consternation at Maine’s limited success in increasing graduation rates by assuring them that “the 2010 Maine Legislature passed LD 1658 which requires districts to reach a 90% graduation rate by the 2015-2016 school year” or face the implementation of a “corrective action plan.” Well, glad to see we have the graduation rate problem solved.

To sum up, this section of the RTT application gave states  a good place to brag about what they had done over the past few years to improve student outcomes. Maine has done little besides spend more money (which the Department acknowledges with the slim reform history it reports), and has uneven achievement gains to show for it.  The Department does its best to put a positive spin on this fact, but I think an opportunity was lost here for the state to acknowledge that despite considerable cost and effort, the reform approaches Maine has pursued in recent years have some up empty, which indicates that the time has come for wholesale change – for a bold new approach.  The reform plan the state lays out earlier in the application isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it does have the benefit of being comprehensive and far-reaching, unlike reform efforts in the past.

If the state is going to prevail in this competition by putting forward a plan with limited statewide support, the Feds need to get a sense that the state is truly serious about implementing reform – that we have decided the old ways don’t work and are ready to roll up our sleeves and really embrace meaningful change. Being honest and forthright about the failings of the past few years would have helped demonstrate that a new era of thinking is dawning in Maine.

The state didn’t do that, but I wish it had.

Up next in the Race to the Top application, a dozen-page section on standards and assessment! Woo hoo!