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Defending School Report Cards, Over a Chorus of Boos

Susan Notes:

It is certainly good news to read about parents their public schools. THEIRS, not Joel Klein's, not Michael Bloomberg's, not Bill Gates' or Eli Broad's.

By Jennifer Medina

The architect of the cityâs new system that assigns grades to public schools faced fierce criticism yesterday at a hearing before the City Councilâs Education Committee, whose members blasted the evaluations as unfair, reductive and a maze of statistics.

For three hours, council members sharply questioned the official who designed the system, James Liebman. His testimony was repeatedly interrupted by boos and hisses from dozens of parents in the packed room. Many of them held up fliers with the letter F printed in thick black ink, a sign of their displeasure that they aimed at the television cameras.

Some council members said the grades relied too much on standardized tests and did more to harm schools then to help them.

âThere has to be a way to break this down and make it helpful and useful to parents,â said Robert Jackson, the chairman of the Education Committee. âI want to know basic things, like are students performing well over the years, about school safety and class size, and how much parents are involved.â

Mr. Liebman spoke in detail, with flourishes from a PowerPoint presentation. He staunchly defended the system, although he said he would take the critiques seriously. He left open the possibility of altering the system to assign more than one grade to each school.

But the hearing was most remarkable for its theatrics.

After Mr. Liebman finished speaking, several parents gathered outside of the council chambers with boxes filled with protest petitions containing nearly 7,000 signatures, hoping to present them to Mr. Liebman in front of the television cameras. But Mr. Liebman, whose title is chief accountability officer of the Education Department, ducked out a side door, leaving parents to chase him out the back of City Hall to behind the Education Departmentâs headquarters at Tweed Courthouse.

There, several education officials ran in circles for several minutes to avoid Jane Hirschmann, the director of Time Out From Testing, an advocacy group, as well as parents and reporters.

Later, in a telephone interview, Mr. Liebman said he had not deliberately avoided the parents and had followed the direction of his staff in leaving the building. By the time Ms. Hirschmann and others were outside, he said, âit didnât look to me like it was going to be a productive conversation.â

Ms. Hirschmann said she was âcompletely in shockâ by Mr. Liebmanâs behavior. âI think it shows total distain for all our concerns,â she said.

During the hearing, Mr. Liebman repeatedly turned to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University as evidence of widespread public support for the system, which assigns schools a grade of A through F. In that poll, 75 percent of the public school parents who knew the grade of their childâs school said they thought the evaluation was fair. But of the 1,007 voters polled, only 143 were public school parents.

âIf youâre telling me that the average person understood the report cards because the Quinnipiac poll said so, thatâs not reality,â said Lewis A. Fidler, a councilman from Brooklyn.

Mr. Fidler said most parents who had children in schools that received Aâs and Bâs were largely satisfied with the grades but had done little to understand the complicated methodology.

âIâm sure your intentions are good, but I have a lot of problems,â Mr. Fidler told Mr. Liebman. He compared the report cards to fantasy football or baseball â collecting a wealth of statistics to create a conclusion that âdoes not reflect what is going on in the field.â

âI wish we could just teach,â he said, prompting a round of applause and whoops from the audience. âI donât think youâre being fair about who is being stigmatized. Youâre glossing over that.â

Councilman John C. Liu pressed Mr. Liebman about whether the grades were based primarily on a one-time test. Mr. Liebman emphasized that for elementary school students, there were two tests: one in math and one in reading. And he said that each test was drawn out over three days. But the lengthy explanation left Mr. Liu exasperated: âIs it or is it not one test?â

Without missing a beat, Mr. Liebman responded, âLife is one test!â

The room exploded with boos and hisses, while several council members tried to suppress their laughter.

Once the crowed quieted, Mr. Liebman labored to explain that the grades were not made up of âjust one test; it also has to do with surveys, it has to do with attendance.â He said that the state tests were fair because they showed whether students were proficient in a variety of skills in each subject.

When Councilman David Yassky said the system created a âfalse sense of precision,â Mr. Liebman emphasized that he expected to make changes before the grades were assigned next year.

âIâm taking very seriously the suggestion of grading various categories,â he said, responding to the suggestion that the city use multiple grades for each school. âIt is something weâre certainly taking a look at.â

— Jennifer Medina
New York Times


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