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The NYC Progress Report Catch-22

[Editor’s note: Eduwonkette blogs at Eduwonkette.]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

What does it mean for a school to be good? It depends on who you ask. Turn to NCLB, and we learn that a school in good standing is one that increases the percentage of kids passing state tests each year. Ask the New York City Department of Education, and we find out that an “A school” is one that improves the academic growth of its students (55%), yet does well on the overall performance measure (30%) and keeps its parents, students and teachers satisfied (15%). As a result of these conflicting definitions, there are many schools in New York City that received As or Bs but are designated schools in need of improvement under NCLB, as well as schools that received Ds or Fs but are in good standing with the state.

New York City educators now face the unenviable dilemma of deciding which system to put first. If schools want to improve their grades on the progress reports, they need to direct their attention to the lowest performing kids since growth is given the most weight and special attention is paid to the lowest one-third of performers. But if schools want to succeed under NCLB, they need to push the high 2s over the proficiency bar. There’s a similar dilemma with high school admissions. Under the progress report system, schools have an incentive to take kids with whom they can demonstrate more progress, but doing so puts them at risk for failing under the federal system.

Of course, there are shortcut strategies that will help schools succeed under both systems, such as neglecting untested subjects like science, social studies, art and music. In both systems, high-performing students are at risk of losing out, since they are likely to pass the tests required for NCLB and can’t demonstrate the growth that the NYC system prizes.

I suspect that the NYC Department of Education’s response to these concerns would be that “good schools and educators are above playing the system in the ways described above, and will respond by improving the quality of education available to all kids.” In this view, there is no NCLB/NYC Progress Report Catch-22.

The irony of the Department of Education’s Janus-faced position on incentives should not be lost on us. On one hand, the DOE is enamored with incentives and argues that we need more of them precisely because of their strong impacts on behavior. On the other, the DOE chastises schools that respond to these incentives by losing non-tested subjects, attending narrowly to tested skills in reading and math, drilling test-taking skills, and focusing attention on one group of students.

But we can’t have it both ways. Either the incentives matter, or they don’t. And the Progress Reports undeniably create a different set of incentives than NCLB.

Readers, your comments are appreciated here. How is your school reacting to the Progress Reports? Do you think NYC educators will prioritize the Progress Reports over NCLB?



  • 1 Peter Goodman
    · Jan 14, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Most principals that I know are not sophisticated enough to differentiate between SQR, NCLB and Progress Reports … they test prep endlessly, many were surprised by higher Progres Report scores than they anticipated, and worry that the grade is a one time bump …

    Some really smart folk will figure out how to “game the system,” sell their services and the marketplace … the spinners of scores, will be a determing factor …

  • 2 jd2718
    · Jan 14, 2008 at 11:18 pm


    Ah, the flattery:

    The Progress Reports measure, um, it’s hard to tell. Which makes them easy to game.

    Some enterprising idiot is going to sell services to principals, showing them the easy ways to up their scores (which won’t actually make the schools any better).

    Know anyone with a minor in math and a major in hucksterism?


  • 3 jd2718
    · Jan 15, 2008 at 7:08 am

    Peter, you flatter me:

    The Progress Reports measure, um, it’s hard to tell. Which makes them easy to game.

    Some enterprising idiot is going to sell services to principals, showing them the easy ways to up their scores (which won’t actually make the schools any better).


    (first t seems not to have come up, and the link was wrong)

  • 4 Harringtonian
    · Jan 15, 2008 at 11:27 am

    The Community Education Council for District 15 (in Brooklyn) will be holding a Forum on the Progress Reports this Thursday evening, starting at 7:00 p.m, at MS 51 (located at 350 Fifth Avenue – between 4th & 5th Streets in Park Slope)

    It is our intention that the forum will start with a brief presentation by our District Superintendent, Rosemary Stuart, setting forth how to read the progress reports as well as a basic description of how they were computed. Immediately afterwards, we anticipate a discussion between Assembly Member Jim Brennan (a very lucid critic of how the Progress Reports were created) Phil Vaccaro (the Project Manager for Progress Reports in the Office of
    Accountability at the NYC DOE) regarding the validity of the methodology in (and the usefulness of) the Progress Reports – especially with respect to the elementary school ratings. The audience will then be invited to ask questions of the forum participants.

    Given the wide divergence of scores in District 15, there has been a substantial uproar over the elementary school ratings and much less regarding middle schools. Moreover, the methodologies employed in determining “peer cohorts” were radically different between the two levels. As such, we would expect the discussion to focus on the elementary school results.

    We look forward to a lively discussion and invite any and all to attend the meeting (child care and interpretation will be available). I hope to see many of you on the 17th.

  • 5 eduwonkette: Be My Guest
    · Jan 16, 2008 at 8:11 am

    […] Be My Guest Edwize is pulling in a gaggle of guest bloggers to comment on the NYC Progress Reports – check out Sherman Dorn’s post on “Bundling Accountability,” Seth Pearce’s post on “The Importance of the School Progress Debate,” and my post, “The NYC Progress Report Catch-22″. […]