How Maine Really Ranks in School ‘Achievement’

photo by flickr user -Marlith-

For the past few years, as pressures on Maine’s education budgets have increased, some members of the state business community have pushed back with a claim that student achievement in Maine schools now lags national averages.

The case, in brief, is that Maine schools are not only expensive but also substandard and therefore ripe for radical reorganization guided by hard-nosed tools from the private sector.

David Flanagan, the former CEO of Central Maine Power, raised this alarm while addressing the Portland Chamber of Commerce last February and amplified it ten days later in a Press Herald Op-Ed.

During his campaign, Paul LePage picked up the theme, telling the Waterville Rotary in August that "...currently in the State of Maine, we are in the top third in spending and in the bottom third in results. We need to flip-flop that."

Most recently the same analysis found root on the web in a satire page which identified Maine for distinction as “the dumbest state.”

Whatever its original employment, this conclusion has been widely adopted by factions eager to rip the distributor cap from public education in Maine for being terminally outmoded, inefficient, and ineffective.

The only problem with this assertion is that it is - in the current political parlance - bullshit.

It’s based on a single, simpleminded observation that the average SAT score in Maine - where the State requires the test of every high school student irrespective of post-secondary plans - is lower than the average scores of all other states, where the test is taken only by varying subsets of students taking it exclusively to gain college admission.

As the College Board itself warns, the utter invalidity of comparing SAT scores between states with wide-ranging differences in participation rates is easily represented by the graph included in this explication of the use and abuse of SAT scores.

So, any time you hear someone present Maine’s average SAT score as evidence that Maine’s schools are substandard, you may be certain that the presenter is advancing this factoid either out of ignorance or in the service of an agenda that would not otherwise stand on its merits.

So, how instead are we to understand honestly how Maine public schools perform in comparison to other states?

It’s a fair question and there are few options beyond relying on the nationally standardized NAEP tests. No matter how one jiggers the NAEP results, they show Maine schools, in absolute terms, consistently performing in the top third nationally.

The discussion could end with that - happily, and with little dispute. But the top-third ranking fails to account for any relative demographic advantage or disadvantage. So, for those interested, I’ve gone a step further on and plotted the aggregate NAEP results against each state’s median income at the end of this more detailed article:

This, I submit, shows a more complex and interesting story and also should serve to narrow the focus towards which states reformers should look for models to improve Maine’s schools - and, perhaps, to caution against the substantial risks of emulating the practices of other states that have shown less success.