With pride in their school, Millinocket students rate LePage’s grading system

The sophomore students in a math class taught by Karla Rutherford at Stearns Junior-Senior High School in Millinocket said Friday they recognize they shouldn’t take Gov. Paul LePage’s new school grading system personally.

They know that, even though their school was initially given an F, it was later revoked because the school’s configuration had changed during the years assessed. They understand their grade was determined by a bell curve, not necessarily by whether their school was progressing or meeting a certain desired academic benchmark.

But it doesn’t mean students, teachers and parents aren’t angered or frustrated or that the label won’t affect the community or even the future of the school, which has 184 students in grades 9-12, with 39 in the graduating class.

Because of the way it measures schools, the grading system mainly hurts areas already trying to improve. It focuses on a largely one-dimensional approach at a time when the administration has supported proficiency-based education, which is less dependent on traditional grades. The system will make it more difficult for LePage to build strong relationships with school district leaders, which is essential if he wants to find ways to help districts grow.

Damean Newbury, 16, of Millinocket, said the F grade felt like another slap in the face for an area that has seen its share of challenges, and it will only hinder efforts to consolidate schools with East Millinocket.

“Some of the kids here want to consolidate, yet some of the parents don’t want us to. For us to get an F grade, that kind of concerns the parents — that they don’t want the kids to come here,” he said. “If we continue to decrease in our population then pretty soon we won’t have a school.”

His advice is for the state to judge the school more holistically and not focus as much on a standardized test. The methodology for the high school grading system takes into consideration the percentage of students who are proficient in math and reading on the SAT — now called the Maine High School Assessment. It also examines students’ progress on the test in three-year averages, the percentage of students taking the SAT and the percentage of students who graduate after four and five years of school.

Shelby Lane, 15, of Millinocket, agreed with Newbury. She’s in show choir, jazz band, on the math team, plays field hockey, takes dance, tutors, has two jobs and is taking three honors classes, she said. There are many ways to judge a school.

“It’s just that our school doesn’t have a lot of students in it, and a lot of our students here are involved in more than just academics. I feel I’m involved in a lot, so I’m going to get more out of life than studying for the SAT for a really long time,” she said.

It’s important to consider that the school has adapted its curriculum over the last few years to try to “get it right,” said Tanner McLaughlin, 16, of Millinocket. Where was that taken into consideration in the grading system?

Marc Morneault, 15, of Millinocket, emphasized that school isn’t just about academics but being prepared for the real world. It’s also about character. “[Teachers] help you be kind,” he said.

Even though the grade of F was taken away, no one has forgotten, Rutherford said. She talks to her students about life lessons, how sometimes if you say something, you can’t always take it back.

“You can’t remove it. It’s there. It’s out there,” she said. “You’re not even grading these kids against themselves. You’re grading one group of students and comparing it to another group of students. So let’s talk growth.”

If the state wants to talk growth, though, how many people will be listening?

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.