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New York Schools Brace to Be Scored, A to F

Kudos to this New York City principal who has defied the ban from the Department of Education to talk publicly about her school report grade before the grades are officially released tomorrow. Note that Chancellor Klein claims these oppressive grades are "the glue that holds together his entire effort to overhaul the school system."

Klein, of course, plans to "tie the grades to rewards, like bonus pay for teachers and principals."

Ellen Foote is now waiting to see what the disciplinary action will be for daring to speak up.

By Jennifer Medina and Elissa Gootman

By many measures, Intermediate School 289 is a place parents would be happy to send their children. This year, it was the only middle school in New York City to achieve âblue ribbonâ status, a marker of high achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The leading public schools guidebook calls it a place where âsolid academicsâ are combined with âattention to childrenâs social and emotional development.â Educators from around the country routinely descend upon the school, in Battery Park City, to shadow its teachers.

So when Ellen Foote, the schoolâs veteran principal, received a copy of the schoolâs new report card from the cityâs Education Department, she was taken aback at the letter grade: D.

âIt is just so demoralizing to have a number or grade assigned that is just sort of trivializing things,â Ms. Foote said. âIt doesnât reflect, I think, the valuable work and the very complicated work that we do here.â

Throughout the city, principals are bracing for the release this week of report cards from the Education Department that will, for the first time, grade schools on a scale of A through F. Because the report cards will assess schools on how much individual students improve year to year, as well as on a complicated mixture of test scores and other factors, many of the grades are likely to upend longstanding reputations, casting celebrated schools as failures and lauding those that work miracles with struggling students. Some principals refer to the scores as a âscarlet letter.â

The schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, has called the report cards the glue that holds together his entire effort to overhaul the school system, the nationâs largest. While other school systems, including New York Stateâs, give schools report cards, few assign letter grades, and few use the kind of complex test data analysis that the city is using.

Mr. Klein plans to tie the grades to rewards, like bonus pay for teachers and principals, and consequences, like closing schools and firing principals.

He says the grades will give parents a clear idea of the quality of their school, set public expectations for schools and help educators identify and understand their problem areas.

âKnowledge, the more of it the better, can be an extremely powerful lever for transforming schools,â Mr. Klein said last week at a news briefing on the report cards. âOnly if you have a clear-eyed indication of what is working and what is not will a school be able to put its energy and talent in making sure we move our students forward.â

In Mr. Kleinâs view, the report cards will hold high-achieving schools accountable, requiring improvement for even the very best. But educators are deeply divided over whether the grades will be an accurate measure of school quality, or overly reductive and misleading. Some say the enterprise simply calculates and recalculates test scores at the expense of teaching and learning.

Thirty percent of the grade is based on overall student achievement on state tests. An additional 15 percent is based on the schoolâs environment, measured by attendance and surveys. The largest portion, 55 percent, is based on student improvement on state tests from one year to the next, a âgrowth modelâ analysis.

Typically, rating systems compare, say, this yearâs fourth graders with last yearâs, the approach used by No Child Left Behind in most cases. The first time, the cityâs report cards will examine 2006 and 2007; later it will look at scores over several years.

The final grade will also reflect a comparison of schools with similar student populations. Elementary school populations will be grouped mainly by racial and socioeconomic background; middle and high schools will be grouped by test scores.

The entire analysis hinges on the accuracy of the data. As recently as last week, some principals throughout the city, particularly in high schools, were panicked that the data was inaccurate. Department officials said they expected to fix most of the errors and would delay the grades for a few high schools because of inaccuracies.

Ms. Foote does not dispute any numbers used to calculate her schoolâs grade on the draft, which she expects will be final. According to the cityâs formula, a primary explanation for the grade is a dip in student performance on state tests. For example, in 2006, 90.7 percent of sixth graders met state standards in reading. The next year, 84.2 percent of seventh graders met those standards. In the same period, the citywide percentage of students in all grades meeting state reading standards rose to 50 percent, from 47 percent.

But Ms. Foote said it was unfair to judge a school on just one year of test scores and ignore gains over the last several years. She said that the percentage of students reading at grade level in her school had increased steadily since 2003, when it was 65 percent. She also said she was surprised to see her school compared to middle schools that required a standardized test for admission, like the Lab School and East Side Middle School.

âI do not want to devote more time to teaching to the tests,â she said, adding that she would have to sacrifice art, music and individualized instruction. âIs that whatâs required now to get a good grade on this progress report? Thatâs a compromise that I donât think I am willing to make.â

Mr. Klein acknowledges that the grades will be more sophisticated when more data is used.

âThis is the first year; the grade is a starting point,â Mr. Klein said. âWhat it says is students similarly situated in other schools are getting different results, and youâve got an expectation to anticipate that your kidsâ results will go up.â He added, âYouâve got to start somewhere.â

Principals started receiving copies of their report cards, called progress reports, about a month ago, but were warned in a letter that speaking about them to the public or the news media before their formal release was âsubject to disciplinary action.â

Ms. Foote said she was willing to speak about her grade because she felt strongly that it overemphasized testing and did not accurately reflect the learning that goes on in her school.

James Liebman, the Education Department official who designed the report cards, part of an $80 million system created by IBM, said that at Ms. Footeâs school, students in the lowest-performing third made little progress from 2006 to 2007. Compared with gains in other high-performing schools, he said, the school did not show that it had moved students forward last year.

At the briefing, Mr. Liebman defended the general methodology of the report cards. âIs it an accident that in this school, almost all of the kids got better, and in this school, almost all of the kids stayed flat?â he said. âWhen you add it up like that, it is very, very hard to say that it is an accident.â

Gregory Hodge, principal of Frederick Douglass Academy, a school in Harlem with students in 6th through 12th grades and a stellar reputation, said he was shocked that his school was compared with those with white middle-class populations. But Dr. Hodge said he was pleased with his schoolâs grade.

âWeâre moved into a much more competitive group of schools, and itâs going to force a school like Frederick Douglass to work a little bit harder to keep up,â he said.

Robert J. Tobias, who for 13 years was executive director of assessment and accountability for the city schools and now directs the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at New York University, called the report cards âan earnest attempt to develop a comprehensive way of assessing schools.â

But Mr. Tobias said the analysis was so complex that some principals were befuddled, despite training sessions lasting hours. âIâve been doing data analyses almost my entire life, and when I look through the complex array of calculations, itâs kind of hard to keep it all in my head,â he said.

âItâs going to be virtually impossible for the public to decipher exactly how that grade was determined,â he added.

Clara Hemphill, who has written the leading guides to the best public schools in New York City and visited hundreds of schools as former director of insideschools.org, a Web site run by the nonprofit group Advocates for Children, criticized the report cardsâ heavy reliance on test scores. Her guidebook praised Ms. Footeâs school, saying that âparents appreciate the fact that kids arenât overly competitive.â

Still, Ms. Hemphill said the report cards were important because âin the past, teachers never got credit for teaching kids who were really marginal students and making them O.K.â

But Ms. Hemphill, now a freelance writer who has written columns for The New York Times, questioned the extent to which the cards would influence parents, saying of the cityâs most prestigious high school, âI think you could give Stuyvesant an F, and everybody would still want to send their child there.â

— Jennifer Medina and Elissa Gootman
New York Times


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