[Editor’s note: This originally appeared in the New York Times.]
Report cards and ratings help us make decisions. From our kids’ grades, to which cities to live in, to what restaurant to go to, the letters A, B, C, D and F guide many of the choices we make in our daily lives.
Maybe that’s why the annual college rankings found in various publications get so much attention. But our elementary and secondary schools generally have not been measured like that, until now. Here in New York City, the Department of Education began to issue progress reports with letter grades to each of the city’s 1,400 public schools. It’s the right instinct. Parents, who rely on the services schools provide, and taxpayers, who bear the cost, deserve fair, clear and accurate assessments of our public schools.
But reducing a complex organism like a school to a single letter grade requires selecting just the right ingredients and balancing them carefully. As the new School progress reports illustrate, the right recipe remains elusive, and the starkly counterintuitive, and in some cases nonsensical, results have left many New Yorkers bewildered.
An example: PS 35 in Staten Island — a school widely recognized as high-performing — received an F. Although more than half its students are eligible for free lunches, PS 35’s reading scores have come in about 20 points above the district average since 2002. A team of outside evaluators gave it the highest possible rating; it has made yearly progress in all areas under the federal No Child Left Behind Act; and it is beloved and sought out by parents and educators alike. So, why the failing grade? Last year, 84 percent of its students met state reading standards, down from 95 percent the previous year. No question, that drop should be taken into account, but PS 35 remains an outstanding public school.
Furthermore, the city’s progress reports are at times grossly misaligned from the state’s grading system. Nine schools listed as failing by the state received A’s and B’s from the city.
A School progress report can indeed provide useful data. However, like a car’s global positioning system, it can tell you where you are, but not all the conditions on the ground that might affect how best to proceed.The DOE says the reports are meant to be accountability tools that expose poorly performing schools, but what happens next? Do we just give up? In Florida, where this school grading system was invented, Miami groups its weakest schools into a School Improvement Zone and floods it with resources and expertise. Unfortunately, here in New York, the Schools Chancellor abolished a similar program years ago.
In addition to offering little help to struggling schools, the progress reports rely too heavily on student scores on standardized tests. Experience shows that test anomalies can cause those scores to fluctuate from year to year. Measuring progress is preferable to measuring only absolute scores — except for very high performing students, who have little room for improvement — but two- or three-year trends reveal much more than one-year shifts. Furthermore, the excessive focus on test scores encourages schools to devote even more time to test preparation, to the exclusion of untested subjects and important learning activities like class trips, art and music, and physical education.
New York City’s grading effort should not be the last word on how to assess schools. Moving forward, the progress reports should give more weight to learning conditions like class size and safety, access to advanced courses and the availability of enrichment activities. Ask any teacher or parent; those are at least as important as standardized test scores.
Finally, no one disagrees that chronically failing schools must be held accountable, but hastily closing or stigmatizing a school based on a one-dimensional grade does far more harm than good. So our grade for the progress reports: “Effort Recognized, but Needs Improvement.”