North Haven’s scarlet letter is a big blue F.
That’s the grade North Haven Community School, Maine’s smallest K-12 public school, received from the Department of Education on May 1. The grade reflects our third through eighth grade students’ score on the October 2012 New England Comprehensive Assessment Program (NECAP) reading and math scores and change in those scores from the previous year.
Our high school has too few students in any one class to receive a grade, and in order to issue a grade to our K-8 program the Education Department lumped together all of our third through eighth grade students for a grand total of 24.
The fact that our reading and math scores need a boost isn’t news. Like most Maine schools, North Haven has initiated a “response to intervention,” which provides students testing below grade level with additional support to accelerate their progress and get them up where they need to be. It’s very effective and we’ve already seen results—none of which were reflected in the October test, given just as students settle into the groove of returning to school after a summer of being kids, and before the response to intervention program had a chance to work.
Reading and math standardized tests tell you exactly what they seem to—the level at which a student is reading and performing grade-appropriate math skills. But do reading and math scores alone define a school? Schools contain so much more. They’re arts programs and science labs. They’re sports teams and history field trips.
At North Haven Community School, which just renewed its accreditation—with honors—with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, we pride ourselves on our hands-on, cross-curricular learning expeditions. Every school has its strengths and its challenges.
Sadly, the governor has chosen to label schools in a very public and stigmatizing way based on a single test that reflects a fraction of their myriad components. If students received a single grade at the end of their school year based on so narrow a rubric, parents would take to the street with pitchforks. But we are now faced with a system that does just that, reduces schools to a color-coded letter.
Out on the islands, public support for a school can make or break a community. Families will go where their child’s school is, particularly at the lower grades, when an independent daily commute or boarding is unfeasible.
Almost immediately after grades were posted, social media buzzed with the news of our big blue F. The long-term effect of this stigmatizing label remains to be seen.
The governor’s grading system doesn’t convey any information not already communicated by the Adequate Yearly Progress reports, but it does make it easier for parents and students alike to speak negatively about an institution at the heart of their community.
The grading system may be here to stay, and I am very confident that North Haven’s grade will go up next year. But for small schools in Maine, focusing on a statistically insignificant sampling of test scores is a harmfully reductive assessment that I believe poses a real danger to our fragile year-round island communities.
Courtney Naliboff teaches music, theatre and English at North Haven Community School.