Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

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School report cards a step in the right direction

The Department of Education’s first-ever School Progress Reports, with its A-F grading system, is sending shockwaves through the city’s educational community.

The reports, which are heavily reliant on math and English test scores, nevertheless go beyond them by using a complex algorithm to compare student results with those of the previous year and against a “peer group” of schools with similar demographics. The goal: to reveal how students are progressing over time so that schools can identify ways to help students whose progress has been stymied.

The reports, released this month, elicited plenty of anger and confusion among parents and educators.

The grading results were at times counterintuitive, and the reports’ methodology immediately came under fire. In addition to the perennial discontent with such a tight focus on test scores, many questioned the concept of coming up with a generic grade at all, not to mention the threat of “consequences” coming from Schools Chancellor Joel Klein that many say will impact teacher morale.

Other criticisms include basing each school’s grade on one year’s test scores alone, given that according to research, 50 to 80 percent of the annual fluctuations in a typical school’s test scores are random or due to one-time factors. Even the mayor acknowledged that the grades are less revealing in the first year because they don’t yet track progress made with particular students over several years. Class sizes and levels of overcrowding at schools were also not factored into the grades. Some of the “peer groups” led to unfair comparisons.

This last problem clearly hurt I.S. 89, which does not require high test scores for admission yet it was grouped and ranked with schools that do. I.S. 89 was the only middle school in the city to earn a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon award last month, based on high test scores coming from a school where over 40 percent of its students qualify for lunch subsidies. The Battery Park City school was one of only 18 schools across New York State that was even nominated for the federal award by the state Education Dept. , yet it was given one of the worst grades in the city based on the same test scores.

Some schools with perennially high scores, like P.S. 234 in Tribeca, got a B for not improving much when the reality is there was little numerical room to get better. Clearly there are problems with the report card system.

But Klein and Mayor Bloomberg deserve credit for attempting to rationalize New York City’s enormous education bureaucracy and steer it toward excellence by allowing principals more latitude, while holding schools accountable for their performance. By attempting to establish fair standards by which to measure student achievement in such a large system, the mayor is making good on his pledge to reform the school system after boldly taking control of it when first elected, something many mayors before him were unable to do.

The task that lies before the mayor and schools chancellor now is to refine this latest endeavor so it produces desirable results for all of the city’s school children — no easy task. But then again, they knew it would be a difficult job when they took on the mandate to fix an ailing system.

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