By Bob Friedrich
In announcing the program, Mayor Bloomberg said, “Information is power, which is why we're committed to providing clear, comprehensive information about our schools to educators and families. 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. And our educators now have a new tool to help them see exactly where their schools need improvement and find similar schools that could help them do it.”Sounds easy enough: Simply check the grade of the school in your community to find the one with the highest score. What a clever idea – if it worked. But making an educated decision based on this newly devised school grading system is about as easy as getting a face-to-face meeting with the chancellor himself to discuss this ill-conceived plan. The elementary school closest to Glen Oaks Village is PS 186, with a very active and engaged PTA headed by parent activist Donna Ostuni. It received a C – not very good, especially considering the level of parental involvement at the school. PS 15, another Queens school, received an A. Surely then, this would be the school you would want your child to attend. The only problem is if you chose the school with the A and passed up the school with the C, you would have made the wrong decision and selected a significantly poorer-performing school. How could this possibly be? Chancellor Klein and the Department of Education had the best of intentions when they set out to create a grading system that would be easy to understand and help identify successful and failing schools in a way that was fully transparent to all. Unfortunately, the design of the plan was seemingly hijacked by a team of agenda-driven bureaucrats seeking to skew results. Let's take a look and compare the performance of both these schools. At PS 15, only 58 percent of the students read at grade level, or as the report calls it, “proficiency.” At PS 186, that number was 86 percent. What about the math acumen of those students? At PS 15 the proficiency level was a good 84 percent but was an even better 96 percent at PS 186. What about the “School Environment?” This catch-all phrase is used by the report to describe everything from attendance and safety to parental involvement and communication. Even in this category, our C-rated school excels with a score of 10.3 compared to a 5.0 for our A-rated school. So what gives? To understand the school grading system you need to think about cooking and baking. To bake a cake you blend various ingredients in different quantities. When you get the right mix, you end up with the perfect dish. The school grading mechanism works similarly. It blends three broad categories of performance together to produce a single grade. However, each category is weighted differently in determining the school's final score. The three categories or ingredients that make up the A-to-F grade are: 1) School Environment, 2) Student Performance, and 3) Student Progress. The Student Progress category, which purports to measure student improvement from one year to the next, accounts for more than half of the school's final grade. So even if a school outperforms in the first two categories, it could end up with a lower grade than the school that performs very well in this category.A school that moves up from extremely low performance to just low performance ends up with a higher mark then the school that consistently performs well. Obviously, a school in which 86 percent of the students perform at grade level or better will have a difficult time achieving larger year-to-year improvements than an under-performing school. Remarkably, the school grading system ignores this crucial detail. Parents had every right to expect that actual student performance – proficiency – would have had the greatest weight in this three-category mix that makes up the final school grade. To their chagrin, this Byzantine grading structure devalues actual student performance in favor of student progress and in its wake has created a grading system where an A really means a C and a C can really mean an A. Still, I think a grading system could work if it's done right. Don't blend the three categories. Simply grade each category separately and independently of each other. It really makes me cringe at the competency of an education system that could get its school grading protocol so wrong. I am certain that Ms. Ostuni and the members of her PTA give Chancellor Klein's grading system an F.