Gotham Gazette

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Report Cards Flunk the Clarity Test

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 "Schools Under Registration Review" have created stews of their own for parental consumption.

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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