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Progress report grades useful; Insideschools more useful

Written by Admin Wednesday, 07 November 2007 03:54

Eduwonkette is spending the week trying to crunch the numbers on the progress reports and so far, she's found some interesting information about the racial breakdown of schools and scores and about the characteristics, such as the proportion of experienced teachers and the percentage of students receiving part-time special education services, that don't appear to relate to schools' grades.

I'll be paying attention, as always, to Eduwonkette's analysis and what parents have to say, but here's my take on the progress reports: It looks like most crummy schools got mediocre or bad grades, and lots of great schools got good grades. The many outliers suggest that you'd be foolish to treat these grades as anything more than they are -- one more piece of information, among many, to use when looking for a school, and an opportunity to take a look at how your school is helping all kids, or not.

The grades could encourage families who might seek out schools and programs outside their zone to consider their neighborhood schools, which would be good for those schools. But with real choice an illusion except in a very few scenarios, I'm wondering what impact the grades will have on parents. Most schools' reputations are pretty entrenched, although I can imagine that the grades might affect how fast up-and-coming schools up and come. Maybe, as Ms. Frizzle says, the grades are best left as a tool for schools.

I think the grades do say something — about how hard schools are pushing their kids — that no other available data say. Schools that are moving their kids forward despite starting at a disadvantage should be recognized for doing so. And schools that are "coasting" because their kids are middle-class and school-ready should know that that's not enough.

But with 85 percent of the grades based on test scores, it's only improvement on test scores that will count. It's clear that pretty much the only way for schools with B's to get A's next year is to improve kids' test scores, often only marginally. NYC Public School Parents has noted a few schools, such as IS 318 in Brooklyn and IS 289 in Manhattan, that have already said their lower-than-desired grades won't make them add more test prep. But many other schools may make another decision, to their students' possible detriment. And I can imagine that at top-rated schools, glee will soon give way to anxiety as administrators realize that to preserve their grades, they'll have to improve upon already excellent performance.

A comprehensive school grading system that looks at student improvement is itself an improvement over looking at straight percentages of students scoring at various levels. But issuing a single grade based on improvement and test scores is reductive and demeaning to teachers — that's a position I've heard from many people. And it drives to the sidelines discussion of other important features of school performance: has the school worked to increase parent involvement? has the principal instituted a more democratic structure that's keeping teachers in the school? is a new arts program engaging students who feel alienated by too much testing?

I think the new grades make Insideschools' qualitative reviews and parent comments even more vital, and I hope parents aren't so distracted by their school's grade that they lose sight of what schools should do to get kids excited about learning.

At this point so much has been said all over the Web about the progress report grades that I don't know what I can add. For once, the Times, the Post, the Daily News, and the Sun were editorially united; they all critiqued the plan by identifying good schools with low grades and lousy schools with high grades. Parents at desirable schools that received low grades are up in arms and the DOE is threatening failing schools with "consequences" that could include closure or principal replacement -- but as the Times notes this morning, despite the chatter, it's not at all clear right now what the grades really mean for parents or even for schools.

Here are a few especially sensible comments I've read about the grades. In the comments, feel free to nominate your own candidates for the Non-Hysterical School Grade Analysis Award.

On the New York Times City Room blog, a teacher writes,

This system for rating schools is the most complete and fair way they have ever been rated by the city or state. ... Grading schools may help the city understand how its educators are faring at the difficult task of bringing the thousands of under-educated students in NYC up to grade level. It does not, however, give parents much relevant information about what school is actually best for their child.

A recent PS 87 parent writes,

I think it’s great that the administration is assessing schools based on various criteria. These evaluations can supplement reputation, impressions based on visiting, and test scores alone for judging the quality of a school. And they’re not only a useful resource for helping parents to evaluate schools–they should help schools like P.S. 87 identify ways of improving. On the other hand, the emphasis on “consquences” for poorly performing schools is disheartening. Are these schools supposed to be scared into performing better? Shutting down a weak school will only increase the overall quality of NYC’s education if weak administrators, teachers, and students disappear. But that doesn’t happen–they are simply moved elsewhere!

And one more from the New York Times:

Why is this new grading system the “linchpin” of the Bloomberg/Klein administration? ... The schools, through NCLB, already are measured for Adequate Yearly Progress. So, why millions and millions more that could have been spent IN the classroom, to come up with this incredibly flawed methodology?

Louise at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn writes,

What does it mean?

Something and nothing. You know your school and you know whether it's any good or not. No report card score is going to tell you anything that you don't already know.

Ms. Frizzle, a blogger who teaches at a middle school that received an "A" grade, writes,

One thing that sticks out in my head is that there is supposedly a computer program designed to help schools analyze their results to determine which actions are likely to achieve the greatest improvements in the data. (The idea is to prevent situations where principals throw a ton of resources at a problem identified in the school environment survey, improve that result, but find out later that because of the weighting it made very little difference in the overall school report). So you need a program to help you analyze the analysis? That seems like a waste of resources to me. Find a way to report data so that it is clear and comprehensible and paints a picture of what needs to change. Otherwise, it’s just more numbers.

Four NYC students finalists in top science competition

Written by Admin Tuesday, 06 November 2007 07:32

How about some non-G&T, non-progress report, uncontroversial news to get us through the day? Four students from the city's public schools have been named finalists in the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology; each will receive scholarships of up to $1,000. One finalist attends Stuyvesant, and the other three go to Francis Lewis High School in Queens. Nine other city kids were named semifinalists -- from Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Hunter, NEST, and Midwood. The kids have one more round to make it through before the national finals, held at the end of November at NYU; the top prize is a $100,000 scholarship. New York City hasn't had any winners since 2003, when the grand prize winner was a Stuyvesant student whose research focused on the biochemistry of memory in the brain.

BSRA a back door to more tests, more data?

Written by Admin Tuesday, 06 November 2007 04:11

More soon from last night's Gifted & Talented public meeting, but I just wanted to draw attention to one thing I've been meaning to note that finally got addressed — a little — in the very last question, at 9:30 p.m. The Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which students will take (along with the OLSAT) to get into gifted programs, is billed by its publisher as a tool that "helps determine if a child may have an underlying language disorder that requires further evaluation." I'm not a psychometrician, but a test that looks for delays doesn't sound like the ideal tool to identify giftedness. Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Marcia Lyles said last night that the BSRA will be used to look for disorders as well as giftedness in 2008-09, when it will be administered to all kindergartners.

So I'm wondering if the expansion of access in the new gifted proposal (especially since the 95th percentile cut off is sure to shrink the actual number of seats in many places) isn't really a way to target students for extra help (a good thing) and/or to establish a baseline from which to generate data about younger kids' performance and improvement to pour into the school report cards.

TONIGHT (11/5): G&T public meeting

Written by Admin Monday, 05 November 2007 12:45

If Gifted and Talented admissions is on your radar, you probably don't need any reminding that tonight is the first public meeting to discuss the chancellor's new G&T admissions proposal. But in case you've been overcome by the progress report news today, here's your reminder. 6-9 p.m. at Fashion Industries High School. See you there. Map.

And now the grades are out

Written by Admin Monday, 05 November 2007 09:13

You can check out an excel file with all of the schools' grades over at the DOE's website. Fifty schools got F's, and 23 high schools' grades have not yet been finalized. (At Pissed Off Teacher's school, the original grade is being revisited because the principal complained.) New schools that haven't yet graduated a class also don't have grades.

Read the DOE's explanation of how the grades were calculated and then let us know what you think of the rankings. Do you see any surprises?

Student Thought: Report Card Report Card

Written by Admin Monday, 05 November 2007 07:54


What does this grade mean?
Your [The Department of Education's Report Card program's] overall score ranks within the 45th-85th percentile among accountability strategies for an incomparably large school system. Although this is a step in the right direction for accountability and is necessary in a system this large, some of the factors you grade schools on are a little misguided.

School Environment- Out of 15%
A large problem with your report card is the meager amount of influence this section has on the overall score. Attendance should be seen as a major indicator of school performance. Students who go to bad schools will probably go to school less often and vice versa. If students are in the habit of going to school it is more likely that they will progress academically and proceed to the next level of education. Surveys should also play a larger role because parents, students, and teachers have great insight into schools' output.

Student Performance- Out of 30%
High-stakes testing is not a great way of measuring results. Test-taking requires an entirely different skill-set from learning. Its emphasis also reduces the amount of actual teaching and learning that takes place in our schools. However, it is still the most feasible way of assessing student performance and deserves to be a factor (albeit a smaller one) in a school's overall grade.

Student Progress- Out of 55%
Measuring student progress is a toughie and the McGraw Hill period assessments are a great way of doing it. Maybe with ARIS you can track a student's grades and how they've improved or worsened over time. Also: Tracking a student's progress from 8th to 9th grade is ridiculous and impossible. Puberty and the transition to high school make expecting all students (especially boys) to progress academically is unrealistic. After being a really good student in middle school it took me until my sophomore year to really get back on track. This section should bear less weight.

Additional Credit
I have to agree with Errol Louis on this one. It is a step in the right direction. Hopefully these assessments will show over time that principal empowerment is a good idea (as it has been at LaGuardia). Accountability is necessary. These report cards help spread the information to the public and let parents get a better picture on how their school is doing. However, the factors of assessment and their weights need heavy revision. Also, the system of relative letter grades will help the DOE and the other education wonks out there learn more about the benefits of competition between public schools in a system as large as New York's.

Joel Klein's new report card system gets a B. It's an interesting and well-intentioned concept but like Joel Klein's other programs, it is most definitely a work in progress.

School report card grades coming out this week

Written by Admin Monday, 05 November 2007 03:12

It's a big week for the city's public schools — the DOE is releasing their report card grades. The grades, based on quality reviews, test scores, and student, parent and teacher surveys, range from A to F; a top grade can mean more money, while a failing grade — assured for 15 percent of schools — could cost principals their jobs. Some schools, such as IS 289 in Manhattan, are getting low scores despite high performance, according to a New York Times article, and others are getting high scores despite low student performance and bad reputations.

Gotham Gazette has a brief roundup of opinion, ranging from Daily News columnist Errol Lewis' defense of the grades as "exactly what parents need to know" to Diane Ravitch's criticism of them as "simplistic and misleading." And while principals certainly care about their schools' grades — after all, their jobs may be on the line — I think Clara Hemphill is right when she says in the Times that a grade alone are unlikely to change parents' opinions about schools — especially when the grade doesn't jive with a school's reputation.

Carnations in cabs and classrooms, but why?

Written by Admin Friday, 02 November 2007 09:56

Yesterday, thousands of city kids were pulled from class to receive and distribute flowers as part of an initiative to draw attention to the reason why more than 80,000 taxicabs now bear Technicolor flowers on their hoods. The car-art project, part of Garden in Transit, celebrates 100 years of taxis by showcasing flower decals painted by the city's children.

But so many people have been confused about the intentions behind the flowered cabs -- several have told the group they think the flowers are meant to "raise money for something somehow related to the 1960s," Garden in Transit told the Times -- that the group decided to launch a new campaign to clarify the first. Unfortunately, it might not have been any more successful: teacher Ms. Frizzle wrote on her blog, "I wonder if anyone took a moment to picture what two dozen 11-year-olds would DO with flowers for the last hour of the day while I was ostensibly teaching science class? ... I grant that I am not 100% sure WHY we got carnations today, and possibly it could have been handled better within the school, but still! Really!"

NYC schools built on toxic sites

Written by Admin Thursday, 01 November 2007 10:16

If you were paying attention to the news over the summer, you may have heard that Information Technology High School in Queens was constructed in an old warehouse on a toxic site. The DOE insisted that its tests showed the site is safe for students and teachers, but lawyers were seeking confirmation by independent scientists, and families were worried about their kids' safety.

Now Fox 5, which brought the InTech story to light, has put together a report about the "three most toxic school sites" in New York City. According to an independent environmental expert, Beacon High School on the Upper West Side, Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem, and PS 156 in the Bronx are all sitting on top of potentially dangerous levels of various industrial chemicals. The DOE says all three sites are safe. Public advocates are pushing for legislation that would require the city to submit leased sites to public review -- the law already requires this of sites the city owns -- but the Bloomberg administration opposes such a regulation.

Update: We've heard that a retraction from Fox may be in the works about the Beacon site. From our source: "Fox won't do a retraction until the investigation is complete ... but the brownfield site was 2 blocks away and ... the EPA or whatever already gave the okey dokey" to the site. Beacon families, you can relax. No word on whether this is the case for the other schools in the original report.

Update 11/7: No retraction thus far from Fox 5 itself, but the expert quoted on the segment has issued a letter that says Beacon is safe. "There is no indication that any contamination resulting at the [nearby toxic site] is threatening the Beacon School due to the rigorous 'source-removal' clean up that was undertaken," the expert writes. Phew.