Parents, Council Still Angry About School Grades

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The city Department of Education’s school grading system, which has led to surprise high and low scores and the planned closure of some “failing” schools, received an F for frustrating and a C for confusing from advocates and lawmakers in a City Council hearing to examine the grading process last week.

Council’s education committee heard from a top DOE official, city Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, education advocates and others on Dec. 10, five weeks after grades for some 1,200 schools in the system were made public, and at the end of a week when the first school closures were announced. The hearing ended with Councilmembers, parents and other stakeholders still wondering why all 14 schools slated to close are in the some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, confused about what the school “report cards” reflect about a school’s quality, unclear about what factors the reports weigh and reward, and baffled at how some schools identified by the city and state as “top-performing” or “proficient” could have earned Fs and be destined for closure.

On top of that, many resent that they learned about the closures “by flyers stuffed in backpacks,” as Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum testified at the hearing, rather than being involved in the decisions.

“The Department should not make these decisions without input from parents and the larger community,” Gotbaum said, maintaining that despite legal obligations to “consult stakeholders before making changes,” neither community district education councils (CECs) – the parent/community panels that oversee local schools – nor other parent bodies were invited into the decision-making process this fall.

Representatives from the principals’ and teachers unions were not at the table, either. “They do not consult with us,” testified Ernest A. Logan, president of the principals’ union. “They make their own decisions and notify us. We’re informed after the fact.”

Committee chairman Robert Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, confronted James Liebman, chief accountability officer of the DOE’s Office of Accountability and the main architect of the progress reports. “Were CECs consulted prior to the determination of the closings?”

“CECs were not consulted before the announcement. They are being consulted now,” after the fact, Liebman said. “The Chancellor and the School Leadership Team have the responsibility and the obligation to step in … [in cases of] severe educational failure,” he testified.

Some parents and school leaders view this as the latest sign that their voices don’t count. Judging from the scene at the Council hearing, they’re not wrong: After a three-hour hearing, parents and advocates were permitted to address the “panel,” which by then consisted of Chairman Jackson, a legal counsel monitoring the proceedings, and 13 empty chairs. Councilmembers, eager to tangle with Liebman while television cameras were rolling, had left the chamber, one by one.

And Liebman himself ducked out a side door after his testimony in order to avoid petition-bearing activists from Time Out From Testing, a statewide coalition opposed to “excessive” standardized tests, plus a phalanx of waiting reporters.

“Seven thousand petitions signed by parents in opposition to the report cards, and he knowingly took the opposite door,” said Donna Nevel, of the Manhattan-based think tank Center for Immigrant Families, who was there with the Time Out group. “The pretense is that he cares what parents think. It couldn’t be clearer from his actions.”

No testimony was offered by education advocates or activists in support of the new ratings system and its implementation at the Dec. 10 hearing, and while some of Council’s education committee members were measured in their statements, none voiced support for the new approach either.

Ratings Soup

The ratings system New York City is using to measure and decide the fate of schools is both unusual on its own, and different from that used by the state – making comparisons confusing at best. Whereas state ratings look at performance on standardized exams to determine if a school is failing, the city DOE reports reward student progress over student performance. Both city and state have the power to close schools however, and well before this new system began, both have used it.

Under state guidelines, 26 city schools are currently designated as Schools Under Regional Review (SURR) and face potential closure. Under the city’s formula, 55 percent of a school’s grade comes from the amount of gain students achieve from one year to the next on a single, standardized test. (For elementary and middle school students, the English Language Arts/Math exam is used; for high schoolers it’s Regents scores.) The balance of the school grade comes from the actual test scores (30 percent) plus school environment – culture, size, crowding, safety, resources, arts, sports, and myriad other factors that shape a student’s experience of school (another 15 percent). Because the city and state weight their evaluations differently, some of the same schools identified by the state as failing are hailed by the city as exemplars of progress.

By the city’s measure, schools judged to make good progress move a greater number of low-performing students into or beyond proficiency in reading and math, in a deliberate decision to reward schools for advancing the neediest, lowest-achieving students. But rewarding progress over performance explains how some high-performing schools, like Bard High School/Early College and the well-regarded Salk Middle School, received lower grades than poorer-performing schools.

In practical terms, this means that schools known to be strong by parents can be graded as if they’re merely average, or failing. One example, PS 35 in Staten Island, got an F despite scoring 95 percent proficiency on state fourth-grade reading exams and 100 percent in math – forcing the question of how much “progress” is possible beyond 100 percent.

Some schools that have made significant gains, like PS 33 in the Bronx which doubled its reading score – praised by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein in 2005 as the school with the second-greatest gains in the city – now gets a D. And schools identified as failing by the state have earned high progress marks from the DOE: Nine of 26 SURR schools got As and Bs on their progress reports, and only six were graded F.

In the DOE system, “progress” is measured compared to a school’s peer group, meaning schools with similar test scores. That’s why large, crowded high schools can be described as “peers” of young, small schools serving scores of students instead of thousands, says DOE spokesman Andrew Jacob.

The disconnect between state and city methods, and between the city’s own instruments sows doubt. “Parents can’t rely on these reports,” said Gotbaum. “Good schools get Ds and Fs, schools with low test scores get As and Bs, and District 75” – which serves profoundly challenged special-needs students – “is omitted.”

Left Behind

Some of the 14 schools that will close will fade out over time, and not accept new students. In many cases, new small schools will open in the same building, to absorb younger students. Others will close at the end of this academic year and reopen, reconfigured, in the fall.

Schools graded F will not accept new students, said Liebman, adding that students at these schools can opt out and transfer out to other, better schools. Students at D schools may not be able to request transfers, but every student now enrolled at a closing school will be guaranteed seats at the schools that replace them.

“I don’t believe you can have a D or an F school that will get better. Parents won’t send their kids there,” charged Queens Councilwoman Melinda Katz. Later she elaborated, “If good, high-performing kids can opt out to a better school, who’s left? What are we doing for the kids left behind? And what are we doing to make the school better?”

Bronx Councilman Oliver Koppell of the Bronx concurred. “Ninety-five percent of the parents don’t study the formula” used to derive the city’s progress score, he said. “They look at the grade. Middle-class parents don’t want their kids at a B school.”

Council member Helen Diane Foster, also of the Bronx, takes a different point of view. “I have a high foster care population in my district,” she said after the hearing. “You don’t see consistent attendance because they’re in the Bronx one day, a month or two later, they’re in Brooklyn. None of that is taken into account. It’s not right to measure their performance by a single standard.”

Challenging Liebman’s assertion that a school score represents outcomes of many variables, Councilman John Liu said it “is really based on one single measure for one student, once a year. … It’s one exam – it’s one test.”

“Is it or is it not one test?” Liu pressed.

“Life is one test,” Liebman countered. Then he agreed that the score upon which the report’s measure of progress depends is, in fact, “a single test, given annually” – a one-shot high-stakes assessment.

For students with special needs, like the medically fragile students at the Banneker School in the Bronx, closing a school can threaten their access to education. For communities like those in the South Bronx and East Harlem, closing swaths of schools can generate wide uncertainty and undermine confidence that the children will be well-served.

Now What?

All of the schools that are closing are in working-class and poor communities. Five are in the Bronx, five are in Brooklyn, three are in East Harlem, and one is in Far Rockaway, in Queens. None are below 96th Street in Manhattan.

Some have new principals, like PS 79 in the Bronx, which will likely reopen, reconfigured, in the fall. As a former SURR school, community members say 79 is on its way back – except that now, it’s closing. PS 220, in the South Bronx, will close as well. As a receiving school (one that accepted students who transferred out of schools failing by No Child Left Behind measures), a near-constant flow of new students challenged school stability and consistent achievement. Is the school’s closure punishment for accepting transfer students – for fulfilling its legal obligations?

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters says that charters may likely replace the shuttered elementary schools. “The DOE needs to find homes for new charters quickly since the cap was lifted,” says Haimson, and closing old schools can create new space.

District leadership teams are scheduled to meet in communities where schools will close. The public can observe these meetings, but there will be no opportunity for direct input or individual parent participation. According to DOE spokeswoman Melody Meyer, the meetings will be working sessions to explore the kinds of schools the community needs, and to solicit proposals and ideas. But developing a new school takes time, says David Bloomfield, a member of the Citywide Council on High Schools and education professor at Brooklyn College. He fears the DOE will move forward with schools it has “on the shelf” that they can slot into communities as space opens.

Once again, parents and local leaders wonder if their voice counts in shaping the city’s schools. “The DOE is reactive,” says Bronx Councilwoman Foster. “They engage the parents after, when things don’t work. The thoughts and responses of parents and students not only are not respected, but they are not acknowledged, not listened to.”

Jane Hirschmann, director of Time Out from Testing, sounds similarly bleak. “Children are data, and teachers are data-entry technicians,” Hirschmann testified, about the education department’s attitude. The DOE’s actions in the hearing room and beyond “tell you what the DOE thinks of parents and accountability.”

– Helen Zelon

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