Thursday, December 6, 2007

Leonie on grades and closing schools

NOTE: Before you read Leonie's piece she sent in an email to her listserve, check the updated post from earlier in the day on the closing of EBC/ENY HS for Public Safety and Law.

Leonie writes:
* Some important events are happening next week, including on Monday, December 5, starting at 9:30 AM, City Council hearings on the new school grades.

Please come if you can; in any event, please sign our petition, calling for a halt to the new school grades and for redirecting the effort, time and resources they’re putting into more testing of our kids, and more grading of our schools, into reducing class size and building more schools instead. And leave comments on the petition – I will incorporate some of the best ones in my testimony.

* Also on Tuesday evening, there will be a forum on the new school grades and high stakes testing, hosted by Central Park East I and II. I will be among the speakers, as well as Debbie Meier and others. If you’ve never heard Debbie, or even if you have, you really should come!

Where: 106 St., between Park and Madison, (take the #6 to 103rd or 110th St.)

When: Tues. Dec. 11 from 6-8 PM.

· The issue of the school grades has become even more urgent, since Tweed announced yesterday that six schools will be closed, based primarily on their “D” or “F” grades. The list of schools to be closed is here. Here is what it says on the DOE website about the “consequences” of getting a low grade:

Schools that receive an overall grade of D or F will be subject to school improvement measures and target setting and, if no progress is made over time, possible leadership change (subject to contractual obligations), restructuring, or closure. The same is true for schools receiving a C for three years in a row. Decisions about the consequences a school will face will be based on:

* Whether the school’s Progress Report grade is an F, D, or C (for several years running);
* The school’s Quality Review score of Well Developed, Proficient, or Undeveloped; and,
* Whether the school’s Progress Report grade or Quality Review score has improved or declined recently.

Over time, school organizations receiving an overall grade of F are likely to be closed.

Doesn’t seem like they waited this long. Meanwhile, there were 50 schools that earned F’s, and 100 that received D’s. So how were these particular six schools chosen?

According to Garth Harries from DOE who spoke to the NY Times, “We certainly started asking the question of all D and F schools in the system, but other layers of information quickly were brought to bear.” Like what? He doesn’t say.

This is just the beginning --14 and 20 schools are expected to close this year. As the NY Sun points out, closing twenty schools is not unusual for NYC, but usually the ones slated to closure have been on the state or federal failing list for several years.

While there are over 300 NYC schools on the state or federal SURR or SINI (failing) schools, several of the schools that were just announced are not among them, but instead, are schools in good standing -- even if they received Ds or Fs from DOE, including PS 79 in D10, PS 101 in D4, and the Academy of Environmental Sciences. PS 79 and PS 101 also received “Proficient” on their quality reviews

Why should one trust the state or federal failing list more than the grades given out by DOE this fall? Because most of the schools on these lists have demonstrated low levels of achievement for many years, whereas the DOE grades were based primarily on one year’s rise or fall in test scores, which in turn, was compared to the gains made by “peer” schools, many of which had more selective admission policies and/or very different populations. This means the grades are statistically unreliable and in some cases, laughable.

While the example of several excellent schools have been highlighted that got Ds or Fs, including Center School in D3, IS 89 in D2, PS 35 in Staten Island, and Muscota in D6, there were also many terrible schools that got high grades.

In fact, 55% of SURR or SINI schools got As or Bs, whereas only 14% got Ds or Fs – not much different from the overall distribution of these grades as a whole.

The News article does the best job in showing how seemingly arbitrary these judgments are: “ At Public School 79 in the Bronx, about 50% of students scored proficient or higher on state math and English exams. And EBC/East New York High School for Public Safety and Law outperforms about a quarter of city high schools in graduation rate, with 48.2% graduating in four years.”

According to the News, while the middle and high schools will be phased out slowly, “Elementary schools on the list will close next year and reopen under new names and changed administrations.”

I suspect that the elementary schools are being closed so that charter schools can be given their buildings next fall. After all, DOE needs to find homes for new charters quickly since the cap was lifted, and it has become more problematic over time to push them into buildings w/ existing schools.

Certainly, there are always alternatives to closing low-performing schools, and the entire theory of improvement is unclear to me. If there is a problem with leadership, the principals could have been replaced; if there was a problem of persistently poor achievement, they could have reduced class size instead – several of these schools had class sizes in some grades of 30 or more. I imagine that if charter schools are put in their place, these schools will be allowed to cap class size at much lower levels. But it appears that the DOE would apparently rather schools fail, and then close them down, rather than help them improve.

Please sign our petition here, calling a halt to the school grading system and asking that the resources and focus on testing and grading be redirected towards reducing class size and expanding the capital plan. Whether your school got an A, a B, or a D or an F – the system is patently unfair, and any school could be unjustly closed on the basis of one year’s test scores alone.

I keep meaning to offer a deconstruction of the Mayor’s comments on class size last week on his radio show—but this will have to wait for a later email.


Leonie Haimson
Executive Director
Class Size Matters
124 Waverly Pl.
New York, NY 10011

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