Friday, November 09, 2007

The Backlash Continues

The Times, Sun, Post and Daily News editorial boards may have loved Mayor Bloomberg's and Chancellor Klein's new school report card grading system based upon a complex formula of standardized test score progress, student/parent satisfaction and school environment rather than overall achievement, but parents, educators and even some education reformers are crying foul.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, called the DOE's school grading system "reductive" and "depressing."

Bard High School Early College, a school where students can earn not only a high school diploma but also two years' worth of college credits and an Associates' degree, received a C in the latest DOE assessment.

Apparently the Bard high school is not making enough yearly progress in turning out students even though the overwhelming majority have completed all of their Regents exam requirements by sophomore year and are holding an AA degree by the time they rent the limo for their high school prom.

Botstein has some pull with the city, so he's getting a second look from the DOE. No doubt Chancellor Klein will do the politically expedient thing, replace the Bard high school's C with an A, and try and put this public embarrassment behind him.

But what about the hundreds of other quality schools with high graduation rates and excellent test scores that have received crappy grades from the DOE because of the reductive nature of the formula the DOE is using?

Sure, those schools can ask for a second look at the report card from the DOE, but I can guarantee you that if they are not high profile schools like the Bard high school or do not have someone in the school or a parent of one of the students with some political muscle, that second look will be pretty cursory.

Andrew Wolf, columnist at the NY Sun who says he first introduced the idea for school report cards in the paper five years ago, issued an apology for that mistake today:
Assigning letter grades to schools may lend itself to press coverage, but does little to improve education. The value added concept, which could and should stand on its own, is now corrupted with a bagful of subjective adjustments, bonus points, and bureaucratic discretions. Once boiled down to the single familiar letter grade, we end up with nothing.

Wolf writes that the tests the DOE are using to cook up their school grades are "poorly conceived or administered" (and if you've ever tried administering a Task I ELA Regents Listening Passage to kids, you'll know what he means.) They have not been designed for the kind of systematic assessments the DOE is doing with these report cards.

On top of that, he notes how using only two years of testing data is problematic because it increases the likelihood of anomalies. He says that this is the most frequent criticism he has heard from testing professionals. You need more than two years of data to get a reasonably accurate measurement.

Wolf concludes by saying that

But most important to me is that trying to boil everything down to a letter grade distorts the process. The weighting of the many factors that comprise the grade become political decisions, open to question after the fact.

Each datum could stand on its own. We should use value added test results to inform instructional decisions about individual students, and instructional strategies for the whole school and, indeed, the entire system.

Similarly, the opinion surveys of teachers, parents, and students can stand on their own. So can attendance figures and the dozens of other indicators that make up the score. Weighting all of this and distilling an artificial letter grade may be newsworthy, but not productive.

Finally, there's the question of the city administering, grading, and evaluating the school system it itself runs. The legislature should insist on turning these functions over to an independent entity, one that would ensure that the conclusions are objective, not part of an enterprise whose goal includes advancing the political fortunes of whoever happens to be mayor.

Indeed, that seems to be what much of this is all about - increasing the political fortunes of Mayor Bloomberg (erstwhile independent presidential candidate) and Chancellor Klein (erstwhile Attorney General or Secretary of Education in either a Bloomberg or Clinton administration.)

Both Bloomberg and Klein knew that editorial writers and tabloid editors would eat up a school grading system that could be boiled down to a simple letter grade, even if that system is a hodgepodge of data that ultimately distorts the actual performance of students, teachers, and administrators at many (especially high-performing) schools.

They got what they wanted - headlines declaring how innovative the grading system is and TV coverage of Mayor Bloomberg lecturing the TV audience about school accountability.

But in reality, this vaunted new school grading system - propped up by no-bid testing contracts and an $80 million computer system - is doing more harm than good to students, educators and schools.

But as I noted earlier, the report cards haven't been created to help students, educators, or schools.

They've been created to help the political fortunes of Bloomberg and Klein.
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