Many city parents reacted with puzzlement, rather than celebration or disappointment,
when they saw the newly released school
report cards. Instead of taking the grades at face value, discussions have
centered on comparisons between expectations and final results. Parents and
educators alike seem obsessed with arguing why the grades are wrong and how
the Department of Education will misuse them. Hardly a show of confidence for
an effort costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
Over the years, New Yorkers have seen a lot of seemingly conflicting and confusing
information from the department. There have been varying accounts of the high
school graduation rate from the state and city and, after years of rising scores
on state standardized tests, parents learned in mid-November that student achievement
had not improved much at all according to another measure, the National Assessment
of Educational Progress.
This backlash to the report cards in particular results from the education
department's mistaken premise: that the grades mean something to anyone but
senior district officials. In fact, and fatally, these school grades symbolize
nothing. They have no independent basis outside the factors and weights subjectively
built into their design.
This is not true for other "report cards," which evaluate everything
from student mastery to hospital mortality rates. There, we understand that
the grades refer to some agreed-upon level of performance. As a society, we
have a pretty good idea about the degree of acumen reflected by a third grader's
"A" paper or what problems might persuade the health department to
give a hospital a "D." Certainly we understand their comparative utility:
that a "B" paper is worse than an "A" and that, all things
being equal, we would rather have surgery at an "A" hospital.
But what are we to make of a school's rating when "environment,"
with its multiple variables like safety and communication, all rated according
to statistically unreliable survey results, constitutes 15 percent of the grade?
Or that "student progress" - measured by questionable state test results
- is weighted almost twice as much as "student performance"? Where
is the social agreement on the measures that add up to school quality?
The reports cards' emphasis on improvement over actual achievement has angered
and befuddled many. Certainly many parents and students would prefer a "D"
school with smart kids and little school-parent communication, despite the taint
of that scarlet letter. If a school earns an "A" through an emphasis
on test prep, with little emphasis on arts or social studies, is that where
I want my child to go to school?
If this is the rubric Chancellor Joel Klein wants to use in grading principals,
it is his right. Evaluation must be based on some subjective measures of performance
and Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose Klein to exercise this type of managerial
judgment. But there is no consensus that the ratings on the report cards indicate
what makes a good school, so spare us the judgmental rhetoric!
"These Progress Reports will give educators and parents the clear information
they need to make smart decisions," said the chancellor in the press release
accompanying release of the reports. "With these Progress Reports, parents
no longer have to navigate a maze of statistics to determine how their child's
school is doing and how it compares to others," said the mayor.
"Clear information"? No longer "a maze of statistics"?
Did they try reading these things? The reports are a hodgepodge of scores, indexes,
ranges, and calculations that only a statistician could love.
A Recipe for Confusion
It is as if a cook prepared a stew. A little beef, maybe some pork, potatoes,
tomatoes, whatever suits the taste. The chef thinks, "It's delicious."
Fine. But there is no more reason to think this is an "A" stew than
another dish, equally satisfying to some, with a different mix of ingredients.
Indeed, the federal government with its designations of success ("Blue
Ribbon") and failure ("School
in Need of Improvement") and New York State's list of low-performing
Under Registration Review" have created stews of their own for parental
Klein and Bloomberg have arrived at a highly individual definition of a "good
school," without any social consensus on that definition. No matter parents
are confused. None of them would have mixed the ingredients in just that way
were they to evaluate the school. So none of them should rely on the mayor or
chancellor to determine where they send their children or how they behave toward
poorly (or, for that matter, highly) graded teachers and administrators.
Fair grading requires comparison based on agreed-upon standards. In failing
to establish the latter, Chancellor Klein has failed to adequately fulfill his
obligation to the former. Rather than providing clarity, the chancellor has
further muddied discussion of his and the mayor's success or failure.
David Bloomfield is the author of "American Public Education Law"
(Peter Lang, 2007) and a parent member of the Citywide Council on High Schools.
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