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Volume 77, Number 25 | November 21 - 27 2007

EDITORIAL

New school grades are step in right direction

The Department of Education’s first-ever School Progress Reports, with their grading system of “A” through “F,” have sent shockwaves through the city’s educational community.

The reports, which rely heavily 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 in the top, middle and especially the bottom third are progressing over time so that schools can identify ways to help those students who are not making progress.

The reports elicited plenty of anger and confusion among parents and educators. The grading results were at times counterintuitive — with both low- and high-achieving schools receiving mediocre-to-poor marks. 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, unrelated to the actual learning conditions at a school. 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 a period of several years. The “peer schools” to which each school is being compared also often differ in significant ways, and class sizes and levels of overcrowding at schools were also not factored into the grades, according to education advocates.

Some schools with perennially high scores were given “B” ’s and “C” ’s 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 Chancellor 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 schools after boldly taking control of them 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 schoolchildren — 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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