Nearly a quarter of the elementary and middle schools marked failing on the 2011-12 Progress Reports were top schools last year.

The Education Department released those Progress Reports today and, in a statement, touted stable grades: “86 percent of schools did not change more than one grade from 2011” the DOE said.

But our analysis of the 102 schools that earned D’s or F’s on their Progress Report this year shows that severe instability persists. Of those failing schools, 24 earned A’s and B’s on their 2010-11 Progress Reports. PS 241 in Harlem, for example, went from a C in 2009-10, to a B in 2010-11 to an F this year. 

Even though a school’s progress report scores may wildly fluctuate, the stakes are high -- low grades on Progress Reports can lead the DOE to close a school. Schools that earn D or F on their progress report or schools that earn no better than a C for three years in a row are flagged for possible closure.

Center for New York City Affairs Education Project Director Kim Nauer says elementary and middle schools’ Progress Report grades are more likely to fluctuate than high schools' grades (to be released later this month) because the lower schools are graded on fewer factors. "When you have more indicators it gives you a better picture of the school," says Nauer, who co-authored a report on the DOE's data and accountability methods with Insideschools' Clara Hemphill. 

Grades are based on a variety of factors: 60 percent of the grade is based on student progress – how much test scores improved from the previous year; 25 percent is based on performance on the most recent state tests and 15 percent factors in attendance and feedback from students, parents and teachers on the annual Learning Environment Surveys. 

This year, for the first time, middle school ratings also consider the percentage of students who pass "core" classes -- math, English, science and social studies. Next year, high school readiness will also carry weight in middle school progress report grades. Nauer says that middle school grades will probably become more stable as these additional factors figure into their progress report schools. (Data wonks should check out GothamSchools for a breakdown of how the Progress Report grades are compiled this year as opposed to last.)

The DOE posted the grades (available here) but parents should view them skeptically. Know that some schools with a mediocre grade actually perform quite well. Case in point: the new PS 276 in Battery Park City which got a C, despite stellar test scores.

Change in leadership is another important consideration that gets lost in a school’s letter grades. Take PS 198 on the Upper East Side: it earned a D this year and a C last year but has a promising new principal who seems likely to improve the school. 

The advice we gave last year still stands: "look beyond the single letter grade--which is often misleading--and concentrate instead on the school survey results, which tell you how satisfied parents, teachers and students are with their school."


(Ed. note: updated on 10/4/12 at 3 pm to state the correct neighborhood for PS 198.)