Dear Judy  

We are researching schools for our child who will be entering kindergarten next year. All the reviews I’ve read have been wonderful; the teachers, the principal, kids, parents, new math program. So I was a bit surprised that it had a low grade on the 2011-12 NYC DOE progress report. Cou you could offer any more insight?

Prospective parent.

Dear Prospective parent,

Your experience confirms ours: don’t judge the school by its letter grade alone. The letter on a school’s report is shorthand for a number of different measures and it helps to have some technical knowledge and persistence to understand it. Your question is a timely one not only for families applying to kindergarten but for 8th graders looking for a high school too. High School Progress Reports for 2011-2012 were released yesterday!

The main premise is that a school’s performance on standardized tests should improve every year and that improvement among low performing students is as important as growth among the high end learners.   The idea is that if a great number of kids come in unprepared, with special needs, or speaking a language at home that is not English, their steady progress is important. Those are the kids that the No Child Left Behind act was aimed at.

On the other hand, if the majority of students arrive at the top of their game -- scoring 3s or 4s on state exams, for example - moving up from there can be tough.And small schools show bigger effects – if one of the four children with special needs fails to progress, the score can be more negatively affected than if one of 20 is behind. The Education Department tries to take into account these factors and compares the school’s progress with about 40 similar other schools. The trouble is that the way schools measure progress is through standardized testing, which then leads to test prep, often at the expense of offering a broad curriculum. Just looking at the test results -- or the letter grade on the school's Progress Report -- will not reveal everything you want to know about the school.  There are other other components of the letter grade: the school's Quality Review and its Learning Environment Survey – we discussed this in a recent post And, this year, 10 percent of a high school's grade is based on how well students are prepared for college.

In our view, the Learning Environment Survey is a good measure. That survey  takes into account how teachers, parents and students feel about the school. Is it safe? Do the teachers keep in touch with parents about the kids’ school work and progress? Do teachers feel supported by the administration? The Quality Review takes into account the school's culture and expectations for students, as well as the curriculum. I suggest you read both thoroughly.

Finally, I can’t stress this enough -- there is no substitute for seeing the school yourself. You have already done research, now take advantage of open houses and school tours, or at the very least, stand outside at the end of the day and chat with the parents or caregivers while waiting for the kids. If you like what you see and hear, go for it!

Good luck