Brian and Tricia Stickney sit with their daughter, Gwendolyn, in front of their home in Durham. Durham Community School’s perfect GreatSchools rating in 2020 prompted the couple to look at homes in the area and learn more about the schools. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

When Brian Stickney and his wife, Tricia, started searching for a house in 2020, they hadn’t seriously thought about moving to Durham until they saw the elementary school’s rating: a perfect 10.

Like many other home buyers, Stickney used GreatSchools ratings to help gauge schools. Towns with higher-rated schools earned a closer look, while those with poorly rated schools were cut from their list.

“We wouldn’t have considered Durham if Durham didn’t have good schools,” Brian Stickney said.

Online ratings like those from GreatSchools make it easier than ever for individuals to judge the quality of schools at a glance. With just a click, families can quickly view important metrics like graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and standardized test scores by school.

But just as high scores can attract potential homebuyers, the opposite can be said for areas with poor school ratings, like Lewiston and Auburn.

Rated as a 1 and a 2, respectively, Lewiston and Edward Little high schools receive some of the lowest scores in the state. The same is true for the middle schools, each receiving a 1.


However, some studies indicate school ratings like GreatSchools’ may better represent a school’s demographics, penalizing schools with large populations of low-income, Black and Hispanic students.

GreatSchools, a nonprofit, is one of the largest organizations in the U.S. collecting and analyzing data for K-12 schools across the country. Most public schools have a calculated overall score ranging from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. These ratings commonly appear with real estate listings on popular online sites such as Zillow, and Redfin.

Its mission is to provide “high-quality information that supports parents pursuing a great education for their child, schools striving for excellence, and communities working to diminish inequities in education,” according to GreatSchools’ website.

GreatsSchools’ profile of Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston. The school receives an overall rating of 3. GreatSchools website

GreatSchools’ scores are calculated based on education metrics: test scores, academic growth, equity and college readiness, for high schools. Its website makes it easier for families to understand how a school measures up against the state average.

But some school administrators say the data, which may be inaccurate or several years out of date, lacks important context. And in some cases, school ratings can change significantly from year to year.

Critics of the rating also say that by only considering a school’s ratings, individuals may miss other characteristics that enrich a student’s educational experience, including extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, vocational programs and local partnerships.


“I understand that people like just one snapshot of a piece of a puzzle,” said Scott Annear, principal of Edward Little High School. “One through 10. I think people, they understand that and they don’t have to do any real research for it. But I don’t think it reflects any school well because it’s not really telling the whole picture.”


In 2020, Lewiston’s four-year high school graduation rate was one of the lowest in the state, with just three out of four seniors earning diplomas.

The high school’s graduation rate is one of several key factors dragging its rating down.

But for a number of Lewiston students, it’s not possible to graduate in four years, Superintendent Jake Langlais said.

Students who enter the Lewiston school district in grades seven through 12 with little to no experience speaking English can’t graduate in four years, he said. “The requirements of the federal and state programming doesn’t even allow it.”

The barriers are numerous. English language learners must take language-focused classes, which don’t count toward graduation requirements. And without a strong grasp of English, students may struggle to succeed in general education classes.


“When you’re in that language-learner intensive program, you can’t go sit in sophomore chemistry class or junior chemistry class and be successful, because that class is in English,” Langlais said. “It’s advanced academic English.”

Jake Joy leads a team-building exercise recently called “Toad and Frog” with his English language learners classroom at Lewiston Middle School. ELL students are often at a disadvantage when taking standardized tests because the test is not in their native language, Superintendent Jake Langlais said. This makes it difficult for districts with a large number of ELL students like Lewiston to perform well in most school ratings. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

He said the district’s five- and six-year graduation rates compare better with the state average partly because of this.

According to state data, Lewiston’s five- and six-year graduation rate was on average 3 percentage points closer to the state average from 2018 to 2021 than its four-year graduation rate.

Even so, Lewiston’s five- and six-year high school graduation rate was, on average, 12% below the state average.

About 15% of students at the high school and 22% of students at the middle school are English language learners; districtwide, one in four students are learning English as a secondary language.

The Lewiston school district has the second highest number of English language learners in Maine, behind only Portland.


The same concept holds true for standardized test scores, Langlais said. If students don’t understand tests written in English, they’re not going to score well.

Adding to the district’s low standardized test scores are students whose parents opt them out, Langlais said.

In 2018, Lewiston schools had the highest number of students opting out of the Maine Education Assessment, according to then-Superintendent Bill Webster. The movement was more prominent in Lewiston than surrounding districts, Langlais said.

While the number of opt-outs has diminished since then, it still affects Lewiston’s scores, primarily because the students who don’t take the test are often the ones who would score the best, he added.

“Some of your best and brightest are not taking the test at all,” Langlais said.

At Lewiston High School, white students are somewhat better prepared for college on average in comparison to their Black and Hispanic peers, according to GreatSchools’ calculations. GreatSchools website

Due to the availability of data, test scores and improvements in those scores is mostly a factor in elementary school ratings, less so for middle and high schools in Maine.


Lewiston’s elementary schools, which rank from 2-4 by GreatSchools, score the best in academic progress — a measure of a student’s improvement on test scores year to year — but less well in the equity and test scores categories.

“Assessments on academics are heavily skewed in communities like ours because of the different languages and also (the) movement opting-out of testing,” Langlais said.

Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline is also critical of schools ratings: “These ratings do not tell the whole story,” he said. “Lewiston educators are professional, qualified and dedicated. They care about Lewiston’s youth. The best thing that we can do as a city is to give them the resources they need to succeed, including funding that will help meet the needs of the student community.”


GreatSchools recalculates its school ratings when new data becomes available or when their methodology changes. But not all of the data is updated.

The ratings for Maine schools are based on data primarily ranging from 2018 to 2020.

Auburn Superintendent Cornelia Brown said outdated data is a significant limitation in the effectiveness of online school ratings.


“Let’s talk about how the schools are doing right now, not how we did five years ago,” Brown said, adding, “I think the system is really flawed. I don’t think it reflects what’s going on, I mean, it obviously doesn’t reflect what’s going on in schools today.”

GreatSchools said there are a couple of reasons why some of their data is several years old. When new data is first released by state or federal agencies, it’s not always in a format that they can use in their analyses.

Some of the data comes from the Civil Rights Data Collection, a national data source that collects data on a two-year cycle, said Megan Walcek, GreatSchools’ senior communications manager. The most recent data collection year was 2018, which is what is displayed on profiles.

“Our data team works to make sure the data is complete and in a usable format before loading and displaying for parents,” Walcek wrote. “We do this as quickly as we are able to. We always work to display data in a way that is user-friendly for parents and gives them context and helps them understand how they can find meaning in the data for their family.”

Online ratings also lack information that is particularly important to parents, Brown said, such as details on athletic, music and arts programs. The large array of co-curricular and extracurricular programs, in addition to Advanced Placement and dual enrollment offerings, matters to families, she said.

At Edward Little, Annear said the school also provides great technical education and early college opportunities for students through strong connections with Lewiston Regional Technical Center and Central Maine Community College, things that he said are not directly considered in the GreatSchools rating.


The high school offers 42 dual enrollment and AP classes, enabling students to earn college credits before graduating from high school. While GreatSchools factors dual enrollment and AP test-taking rates into its calculations, Annear said the 2019 data is likely not up to date.

“Our numbers have been growing and growing and growing,” Annear said, specifically referencing AP tests.

At Edward Little High school in Auburn, the graduation rate, Advanced Placement course participation and dual enrollment participation rates have risen since this data was last uploaded to GreatSchools. The graduation rate currently on the page is from 2020, while the AP and dual enrollment course participation data is from 2018. GreatSchools website

GreatSchools said it is working to add more of this kind of information to school pages. The organization recently added the list of AP class offerings for high schools, and community members can add reviews, for instance.

School administrators also have the ability to “claim” their school page to add information directly, including extracurricular offerings, AP course lists, a description of the school, contact information for administrators and school hours.

While Annear said data doesn’t provide a complete picture of a school, it’s something administrators keep a close eye on.

“We have our mind and attention on data constantly and about how to improve,” Annear said. “We don’t just ignore it, it’s front and center for us, whether it’s about reading and writing, or it’s about graduation, or it’s attendance or behaviors.”


Both Annear and Langlais spoke to the challenges of supporting students with diverse needs. Nearly half of Auburn students and two out of three Lewiston students are economically disadvantaged.

“Some groups of kids may need to take five steps, and others need to take 25 steps to get to that positive outcome,” Annear said. “That is very daunting and challenging.”

There’s some evidence that Edward Little is moving in the right direction. Chronic absenteeism, defined as 15 or more unexcused absences, has declined in recent years, according to state data.

From 2019 to 2021, Edward Little’s chronic absenteeism rate dropped from 27% to 15%, far lower than the 40% GreatSchools has listed from the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection of 2018.

Lewiston High School has remained relatively constant at a 35% chronic absenteeism rate since 2018, except for a spike in 2021. That year, when schools moved to hybrid learning because of the COVID pandemic, more than half of students were chronically absent.

The state average across all schools is 20%.


Despite the challenges, administrators from Lewiston and Auburn schools say their students benefit from a diverse socioeconomic, multicultural and multilingual student body.

“The richness of the value of diversity on a student’s development, to have peers around them that celebrate different beliefs and cultures and speak different languages — there’s tons of research out there that says your kids are better off going to a diverse school . . . from a learning (and) preparedness for life perspective,” Langlais said. 

The administrators contend that students can absolutely get the same quality of education at their schools as top-rated schools in the state.

“I would argue that it’s better,” Langlais said.


Two years ago, Joe Atwood and his girlfriend, Jenn, moved to Lisbon Falls with their infant daughter. GreatSchools ratings, he said, played a role in how they evaluated nearby schools.

“We wanted to find a place that was between both of our jobs, but also had the best school system we could get with our budget,” Atwood said. “We didn’t want to move to a town with bad ratings or anything of that nature, you know, we wanted the best school possible for our daughter.”


Lisbon’s school ratings have remained virtually the same since Atwood and his infant daughter moved to town in 2020, with one notable exception: the high school.

In 2020 ratings, Lisbon Community (elementary) School received a 4, the middle school a 6 and the high school a promising 7. In 2021, the elementary and middle school each dropped a point as the high school held onto its “above average” rating.

But in 2022, just one year later, the high school is listed as “below average” with a 4. Based on data from 2020 and earlier, the school’s rating dropped by 3 points on the scale of 10.

What changed? The high school graduation rate — by just a few students.

Jenn McGuiness and Joe Atwood sit with their daughter, Emma, in front of their Lisbon Falls home. Atwood said they started relying less on online school ratings when he found that the numbers didn’t always match up with experiences from people in the community. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

For a number of reasons, a school’s ratings may shift year to year as it did with Lisbon High School. In Lisbon’s case, small class sizes meant getting a lower rating because just a few more students didn’t graduate compared to previous years.

In terms of percentages, according to GreatSchools, the high school’s overall graduation rate dropped from 91% in 2019 to 87% in 2020, shifting its rate from being above the state average of 87% to being even with it.


But the change in Lisbon’s graduation rate for low-income students specifically — by percent — had an even greater impact on its overall rating, according to Orville Jackson, GreatSchools’ vice president for data strategy. Lisbon High School’s graduation rate for low-income students fell from 88% in 2019 — far above the state’s average of 79% — to 78% in 2020.

Virtually every other metric remained the same, and Jackson confirmed that there were no changes in methodology from 2021 calculations to 2022.

In 2019, seven seniors in a class of 87 students didn’t graduate, according to state data. That number rose to 11 students in 2020, which had a total class of 86.

Breaking that down further, among Lisbon’s economically disadvantaged students, five out of 42 didn’t graduate in 2019 and 11 of 51 missed the mark in 2020. In the 2019-20 school year, 38% of Lisbon high school students were economically disadvantaged.

When GreatSchools recalculates its ratings next year using graduation data from the class of 2021, Lisbon High School may see a boost in its rating.

Although the overall graduation rate in 2021 was about two points lower than the state average of 86%, the high school once again far surpassed the state’s economically disadvantaged student graduation rate: 85% at Lisbon to 76% statewide.


Lisbon High School Principal Susan Magee did not respond to an email requesting comment.


For those who can afford it, school quality — or the perceived quality — often drives decisions on where individuals choose to live.

Without a doubt, poor school ratings are probably causing some would-be home buyers to turn away from Auburn, Mayor Jason Levesque acknowledged recently. But now, it doesn’t matter all that much, he said.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Auburn was named the No. 10 hottest housing market in the U.S. in 2022 by The ratings are based on the length of time it takes homes to sell and the number of viewers a listing receives on the website.

But in a worse housing market, Auburn and other towns would likely feel the effects of poor school ratings: lower demand and, consequently, lower home values.

At Auburn Middle School, students are below state average in math and English, but above the average in science, according to GreatSchools’ 2019 data. GreatSchools website

Lewiston’s mayor and his family moved to the city 10 years ago because the home they liked happened to be in Lewiston, according to Sheline. His daughter graduated from Lewiston High School in 2021 and his son is a sophomore there.


“We chose Lewiston public schools for our children because of the district’s diverse student population,” he said. “We wanted them to be exposed to other races, cultures and ideas and all of the other ways that make our community diverse.”

Every buyer has different criteria for their home purchase, said Jocelyn O’Rourke-Shane, co-owner of Maine Real Estate Choice in Naples and president of the Western Maine Council of the Mountains to Shore Board of Realtors. The quality of schools is particularly important for families with children.

However, since the start of the pandemic, O’Rourke-Shane has seen less emphasis on school ratings. If families don’t like the school district, they’re now more apt to consider home-schooling their children, she said.

Real estate agents themselves are not able to share their opinions on school districts due to the Fair Housing Act, she added. “We just have to guide them and give them the information that they’re looking for.”

Generally, she said reputation is a greater factor in how families assess school quality than online ratings. But ratings play a greater role for families moving into Maine from out of state.

Rising interest rates and low inventory have pushed many home buyers to compromise, she said.


In some cases, families may even purchase homes in less desirable locations seeking to build equity, then move to more desirable locations later, she said. Some families are using this strategy to move into neighborhoods with higher-rated schools.

O’Rourke-Shane has also worked with some families who chose to rent instead of buying a home if they have a specific school they want their children to attend.


Although many look to ratings like those from GreatSchools to judge the quality of a school, some recognize that numbers can only show so much.

Durham homeowner Stickney said he went beyond the schools’ overall ratings to consider the data behind it: students’ academic progress, attendance rates and outcomes for low-income and traditionally marginalized student groups. He even examined whether ratings remained consistent year to year.

Once he and his wife had a short list of locations, they began talking with people in those communities and searching for online discussion forums to get a better sense of the school culture.

“The number may not be completely the whole picture of the story, but when everyone is saying that the school system is really good, you get a better feeling about the information being accurate,” he said.


In Lisbon Falls, Atwood said he started moving away from school ratings when he found the numbers at times didn’t match up with experiences from people in the community. Even while using ratings to help evaluate school quality, he said he continued to question the numbers.

“Sometimes (the ratings) say (it’s) a good school, but then you talk to someone and they’re like, you know, ‘My kids go there and I absolutely hate it’ . . . So then you wonder how accurate they really are.”

While some officials believe that school ratings are not representative of a school’s quality of education, Levesque has a pragmatic perspective: the ratings exist, so what can be done to improve them?

Some of this work is already in motion, he said.

After Auburn modified its requirements to allow students to graduate with fewer credits than previously required — but still more than the state minimum — Edward Little’s graduation rate rose from 80% in 2020 to about 89% in 2022, according to Brown.

Auburn’s standardized test scores may also be on the rise. A state assessment from the spring found that eight out of 10 students districtwide were proficient in literacy, a marked improvement from previous tests.


However it is difficult to compare current scores to the 2019 data used by GreatSchools. Maine began using a new standardized test from the Northwest Evaluation Association in the spring of 2021.

While acknowledging that he didn’t know the specifics of GreatSchools’ ratings, Levesque predicts that gains in the graduation rate and test scores will lead to a rise in Auburn’s school ratings.

“Doing the same thing we’ve done with education year after year, expecting different results, does not work,” Levesque said. “It doesn’t. It’s not about the money you throw at the problem. What matters is results and a different approach.”

Some officials say they’re OK with some would-be homeowners passing over their cities and schools.

“If someone is going to look at those numbers and give (Auburn schools) a 10-second cursory overview and then move on, frankly, maybe they shouldn’t move to Auburn,” Levesque said.

Langlais said he wanted to see people look beyond the numbers and Lewiston’s reputation to get to know the community within.

“If you want to live in a community, do you check a link on a real estate page or do you check into the community?” he asked.

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