AUGUSTA, Maine — Three-quarters of the state’s schools received a grade of C or lower under a new ranking system unveiled by the Maine Department of Education on Wednesday.

Only 10 high schools, most of them in southern Maine, received an A grade.

While there has been widespread resistance to the idea, which some have called a punitive oversimplification of a school’s quality, the LePage administration has billed the grades as a simple and accessible way to reward high-performing schools and help educators and communities rally around the rest. Maine is the 14th state in the nation, along with New York City, to implement a school grading system.

Gov. Paul LePage, during a press conference Wednesday in Augusta, said the only reason he asked for the grading system was to improve Maine schools. He has set a goal of improving standardized test scores by 20 percent within “a couple of years.”

“My mission is to make sure our education system gets the visibility that it needs to get throughout the state,” said LePage. “I want the good schools to be rewarded and those that aren’t doing as well, to be able to help them. That’s really the agenda. This is not a Democrat, Republican or independent process. It’s for our kids. We need to put our kids first, at the front of the line. … The only way that we can do assure that happens is to look at ourselves and be critical of that performance if we’re not top-notch.”

Superintendents across the state blasted the grading system as overly simplistic, “myopic and senseless.”

“When a school is down, this is only going to serve to kick them harder,” said Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and longtime superintendent in Augusta. “It’s not going to be a catalyst to help schools improve. It’s punitive and it’s just not a valid way to do this.”

The Maine Education Association, a labor union for Maine educators, continued its longstanding criticism of the grading system in a press release distributed hours before the statewide unveiling. The MEA argued that because of the system’s reliance on standardized tests, it pits wealthy communities with generally higher levels of education among parents against poorer communities. The grades released Wednesday largely bear this out.

“Research shows that children on free and reduced lunch score lower on standardized tests,” said Rob Walker, the MEA’s executive director. “When we look at these letter grades given to our schools by the Department of Education, the school districts that scored the lowest are also the ones that have the most students on free and reduced lunch. Since when did it become OK to tell poorer communities that their students are failing when they’re faced with obstacles out of their control?”

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen acknowledged that the grading system is designed to put a spotlight on schools, for better or worse.

“Part of my goal is to make some phones ring,” he said. “I want my phone to ring at the department about what we’re going to do. We want school board members’ phones to ring. We want superintendents’ and principals’ phones to ring. We want parents to start thinking what their role is in all of this.”

The grades are distributed along a bell curve, which means the majority of elementary and high schools received a C. Samantha Warren, who took over as the Department of Education’s spokeswoman this week, said the bell curve is being used in the first year “to establish a baseline,” but won’t be necessary in future years. The next round of grades for high schools will be released this fall and new elementary school report cards will sent out next spring.

Not every school received a grade. Some were excluded because they have too few students or were formed too recently for there to be enough data available. Private schools were not included because most of them are not required to report testing data to the state. Charter schools, the first of which were opened in Maine last year, also did not receive grades this year because they are so new. They will be included in the grading system next year.

Superintendent Paul Stearns of MSAD 4, in the Guilford area, took issue with the use of a bell curve and used three private Maine education institutions — Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges — to illustrate his point.

“One of them would get a C, one would be an A and one would be an F,” he said. “I don’t believe any of those institutions isn’t an A.”

Stearns, who is also president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, said schools already use the mountains of data available to them to develop improvement plans. The high school in his district, Piscataquis Community Secondary School, was excluded from the state grading because it is too small. The district received a C at the elementary- and middle-school level.

There were 50 elementary and middle schools that received an A grade and 34 schools with Fs. For elementary schools, the grades are based half on student proficiency in reading and math as measured by the New England Comprehensive Program, a test known as the NECAP which is given in grades three through eight, and half on students’ improvement over time. For the most academically challenged students, the results of a test called the Personalized Alternate Assessment Program were also used.

For high schools, growth and proficiency as measured by the SAT, which is given to 11th-graders, each make up 40 percent of a school’s grade. The remaining 20 percent is based on graduation rates. Only 10 high schools received an A while 10 were given Fs, all of them in rural parts of the state.

Less than an hour after the grades were released to the public, six schools were dropped from the list. Three of them had received Fs and three had been given Cs.

The schools were dropped from the rankings, the Department of Education said, because their configurations had changed during the years included in the assessment. For example, in July 2012, Millinocket Middle School was closed down and Stearns High School became a grade 7 to 12 instead of 9 to 12. Therefore, the grades would not have reflected the schools as they currently exist.

As a result of the changes, nine high schools had Fs and 32 elementary and middle schools received the lowest grade.

LePage and Bowen have continually emphasized that the crux of the grading system is to allow the department and others to help struggling schools. LePage, who announced the creation of the grading system during his State of the State address in February, proposed in his biennial budget plan to spend $3 million for school improvement initiatives. That money, which is under consideration along with the rest of the budget by the Legislature, would complement Title 1 federal dollars that already flow to low-performing schools which have a level of students whose families are below certain income guidelines. In addition the department will help struggling districts develop improvement plans and encourage schools with higher grades to share best practices.

Schools received the criteria used to develop the grades last week and their actual grades on Monday. Warren said the Department of Education has received dozens of calls from districts inquiring about the grading criteria but so far very few complaints about inaccurate grades. She said that was because the data used were all previously available and verified.

In Portland, Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk is reaching out to his community. Casco Bay High School received a B while Deering and Portland High Schools each received Ds. The district’s elementary school grades ranged from A to F. Caulk said he laments the fact that the Department of Education’s grading system is much simpler than the system used to grade individual students.

“When students receive grades in our schools, it is based on a diverse body of evidence and complex assessments to help inform education decisions and support student learning and achievement,” he wrote in a letter to parents. “Unfortunately, the state system to grade our schools is not that complex. … No one in the education field today believes one standardized test a year is an accurate measure of student progress or school quality, yet Maine is primarily using that simplistic system. Since annual standardized tests measure progress during the previous year, they are a snapshot in time that is more than 2 years old.”

Rockland-area Superintendent Lew Collins told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday that the grading system is “myopic and senseless.” The scores for Rockland-area schools ranged from A to D.

“I sincerely regret the commissioner’s decision to politicize, yet again, the good work of our school staff, school board, administrators and community volunteers down to such a narrow, myopic and senseless measure,” said Collins, who also said the publication of the grades would complicate school budget votes across Maine.

He also noted that the ratings “don’t measure K-8 science, art, music, phys ed, drama, computer, student well-being, etc.” Nor do the grades consider demographics or the role parents play, for instance, when there are significant absences by students.

Collins said it appears the grades were designed to support the governor’s contention that Maine schools are failing, which Collins said is not the case.

In AOS 77 in the Calais and Eastport area, two elementary schools received grades of F, but Superintendent James Underwood said he’s focusing on the positive, namely year-to-year progress being made in even his lowest-performing schools. But he acknowledged his communities face an uphill battle in efforts to improve their schools’ grades. District-wide, more than 60 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch and at one elementary school, there are teachers who have classrooms with three grade levels of students in them.

“We can barely scrape enough tax money together here locally to fund the very basics,” said Underwood. “We’ve had to cut and cut our staff. We’ve found that to close schools will actually cost more money. We have have almost no money for supplies or textbooks, let alone upgrading computer technology. In spite of all that, we’re still making progress.”

Stearns, the superintendent in Piscataquis County, questioned whether the grading system accounts for students who are on varying career tracks, such as those in Maine’s technical education programs.

“The SAT might be a tremendous measure of a student in, say, political science,” said Stearns. “If you have a student who is going to be a fabricator, perhaps that’s not the best measure.”

Stearns also said an element of the grading system that punishes schools who don’t have a certain number of students taking standardized tests could skew the results. In the high school grading system, for example, schools who don’t achieve 95 percent participation in the SAT are penalized a letter grade while those who don’t achieve 90 percent participation receive an automatic F. Sometimes who takes a test and who doesn’t falls outside the authority of a school, said Stearns.

“Around the country there are large pockets of people saying, ‘We have had enough of this high-stakes testing’ and they’re boycotting,” said Stearns.

In RSU 1 in the Bath area, Superintendent Patrick Manuel said his district has challenged the department on the grade of D given to the West Bath School because the district’s internal data do not match what the Department of Education has reported. All the district’s other schools received Cs, with the exception of a B given to Phippsburg Elementary School.

“We question the methodology used for these letter grades as it is primarily based on how students score on math and reading standardized tests given once a year,” Manuel said. “We don’t feel that this is an accurate measure of students’ progress or school quality, nor does it tell the whole story of other positive things happening in a school. However, these report cards contain data that show areas where we are doing well and areas that need focus.”

Warren said the Department of Education expects to hear concerns about the grading system in the coming days but is hopeful those concerns will morph into constructive conversations about improving Maine’s education system.

“Today marks the start of a conversation about how do we best support schools in meeting the needs of all students,” Warren said. “After the initial few days of getting familiar with the new grading system, we know the conversation will move in that direction because ultimately all Mainers want what is best for our kids.”

BDN reporters Stephen Betts and Seth Koenig contributed to this story.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.