School Report Card Risks



President, United Federation of Teachers

When making comparisons or judging the quality of goods or services, people often find it convenient to use letter grades because they can convey complex impressions quickly and simply.Whether it's deciding which restaurant to visit, what city to live in or what car to buy, we seem to take some comfort and assurance in using rating systems to make informed choices.

New York City's elementary and secondary schools were not measured that way until this past November when the city Department of Education issued progress reports with letter grades to the city's 1,400 public schools. The intent is good because parents who rely on the quality of schools for the education of their children and taxpayers who bear the costs deserve fair, clear and accurate assessments of our public schools.

However, reducing a complex entity with varied components to a single letter grade is not a simple matter. Doing it fairly and accurately requires selecting the right indicators and factors, viewing them in the right context and weighing them carefully to make sure the assessment is balanced and correct.The new school progress reports show that finding the right recipe for grading schools is not easy, and the results, which seem to contradict each other in some cases, have left many New Yorkers confused.

Consider, for example, the case of PS 79 in the Bronx. In May of 2007 the school received a letter from New York State Department of Education Commissioner Richard Mills commending it for being one of the top 226 most rapidly improving schools in the entire state. Even so, the school received a letter grade of "F" from the city and it is slated to close.

This is one of many examples showing how the city's progress reports at times are simply not in sync with the state's grading system. A number of city schools considered by the state to be in good standing received poor or failing grades on the progress reports while nine schools listed as failing by the state received an A or B from the city.

There is no question that ratings can serve a purpose, and school progress reports can indeed provide useful data for parents, students and educators. But the city progress reports are somewhat akin to a car's global positioning system: It can tell you where you are, but it cannot tell you all the conditions on the ground that might affect how best to proceed.

The city Department of Education says the reports are intended to serve as accountability tools to expose schools that are performing poorly. But what should happen next? Should we give up on these schools and abandon them? To that end, the city has announced plans to close several schools that received failing grades and more could follow in the next round.

In Florida, where this school grading system was created, the city of Miami groups its weakest schools into a School Improvement Zone and focuses resources and expertise on them. Years ago, New York City had a similar program called the Chancellor's District, but Chancellor Joel Klein opted to end it.

The greatest concern is that the progress reports rely too heavily on student scores on standardized tests.The reports stress student progress on the tests - which, in the abstract, is very constructive - instead of absolute scores. However, as a result, a school that improved its test scores but still continues to struggle academically can receive an A or B while a school with consistently great scores that have little room to improve can receive a failing grade.

This excessive focus on reading and math test scores encourages schools to spend even more time on test preparation to the exclusion of subjects that are not tested - such as music and art - and important learning activities such as class trips and physical education.

As we move forward, educators will press for changes in the progress reports to give more weight to learning conditions such as class size, school safety, access to advanced courses and the availability of enrichment activities. Chronically failing schools should certainly be held accountable, but closing or stigmatizing a school on the basis of a one-dimensional grade does far more harm than good.

To that end, the United Federation of Teachers, which represents the city's 100,000 public school educators, is putting its words into action. We are exploring alternative accountability systems that could reflect more accurately how our schools are faring.While this project is just getting started, we are hopeful we can improve on the city's grading system. In the meantime, if the union were to give a grade to the city's grading system it would have to be an I for incomplete with a notation:"Effort Acknowledged but Needs Improvement."

On that note, I want to take this opportunity to invite parents and the public to weigh in on this issue and other education matters in a series of forums the UFT has scheduled to evaluate the present school governance system and make recommendations for future governance before the 2009 sunset of mayoral control of city schools. Forums have already been held in Staten Island and Manhattan,and for more are scheduled next month for the other boroughs including a second one in Manhattan.The schedule is:

Thursday, February 7,4 p.m., in The Bronx at the Bronx UFT Office, 2500 Halsey Street. Contact Hector Ruiz at 718-862-6074 for more information;Tuesday, February 12,4:30 p.m.,in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn UFT Office, 335 Adams Street, 24th Floor. Contact Armando Blasse at 718-852-4900;Wednesday, February 13,6 p.m., in Manhattan at Middle School 104, 330 East 21st Street between First and Second Avenues. Contact Monique McCoy at 212-598-6835; and Thursday, February 28, 4 Queens at the Queens UFT Office in Rego Park, 97-77 Queens Boulevard, 8th Floor. Contact Diane Ganz at 718-275-4400.

Please come and let your voice be heard!