As a public school parent and an advocate for public education, I am dismayed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s misguided and misleading attempt to evaluate schools with grades of A to F. It baffles me why the mayor, who has spent so much energy trying to improve the school system, would put forward a grading system that undermines public confidence in some very good schools while offering little help for beleaguered schools beyond a threat to “hold principals’ feet to the fire.”
In the last two weeks, I have been deluged with phone calls from parents at my own child’s school, Salk School of Science in Manhattan, which received a C, despite the fact that its test scores are among the top in the city and the Department of Education’s own “quality review” – based on classroom visits rather than convoluted analysis of data – describes the school as a “vibrant learning community” with a “highly effective leader.” Parents ask me: Will our children be penalized in high school admissions because of the school’s mediocre grade? Will prospective students be discouraged from applying? Will our principal be punished? While these fears may be unfounded, the grade of “C’ has certainly demoralized students, teachers and administrators.
My concern, however, is not so much for a universally well-regarded school like Salk, but with the unsung schools in poor neighborhoods that make heroic efforts to educate their children, like PS 179 in the South Bronx, which received an “F” despite overwhelming positive evaluations by both the city and the state.
The city’s own “quality review” describes PS 179 as a “happy school” with a “well-respected” principal, a “dedicated and committed staff” and “confident, polite and extremely well-behaved” children. PS 179 received an “F” because its third graders did spectacularly well on standardized tests in 2006 (with 78% at grade level in reading and 84% in math), and then slipped back to the neighborhood norm in 4th grade in 2007 (43% at grade level in reading and 63% in math.). PS 179 would have received a better grade if the students had never done well: The new assessments reward schools with poor but steadily increasing scores, while penalizing schools that do particularly well one year and slip back the next.
The city is right to look for a measure that will quantify the “value added” of any school, that is, how much progress students make over time. However, as any parent or teacher can tell you, test scores can fluctuate from year-to-year for no reason at all. Some years the test is harder, some years it is easier. Sometimes a few kids feel sick or anxious, sometimes they are in top form. Better to look at the test scores over time – say three years. And don’t attempt to boil the complexities of a school down to a single letter grade.
The evaluations are not all wrong. Indeed, probably three-quarters of the schools received the grades they deserved. The evaluations did serve a positive function: to highlight some schools that make great progress with struggling students, such as East Side Community High School in Manhattan, which received an “A.” But even for the schools that deserved their bad grades, what is gained? Washington Irving High School, also in Manhattan, probably deserved its “F,” with its abysmal rates of attendance and graduation. But is public humiliation the way to fix a school? Wouldn’t smaller class size, better training for teachers, and more help for administrators be more effective?
Clara Hemphill is the author of a series of guidebooks to the New York City public schools