No Child's fallout in New York
Associated Press
Jan. 22 2008

 Letter grades for NYC schools aggravate parents, educators

By Karen Matthews

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

NEW YORK — Thanks to heavy parent involvement and high test scores, Public School 321 in Park Slope, a yuppie neighborhood in Brooklyn, is considered a gem of New York City's public school system.

In the eyes of New York's Department of Education, however, P.S. 321 deserved just a B in the city's first-ever school report cards, which are based largely on how students score on standardized tests.

Such accountability efforts — widespread since the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act — have raised the hackles of parents and educators across the country, who fault the methodology and question the wisdom of tying test results to the job safety of teachers and principals.

Now parents in the nation's largest school system are voicing similar concerns about the grades, released in November as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's push to turn around underperforming schools.

"It really saddens me that this is how the Department of Education thinks that parents are best served, by boiling everything that happens in an entire school to a letter grade," said Lee Solomon, the mother of a first-grader at the Brooklyn New School, a sought-after school that accepts students only by lottery but got a C.

Educators have debated the push toward testing since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002 at President Bush's urging. While some studies show that student achievement in reading and math has increased, teachers complain that they are forced to teach to the tests and to give up "frills" like music, art and recess.

A 2006 survey by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math.

Jim Devor, the father of a fifth-grader at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn — which got a D on its report card— said students there were "strongly invited" to attend Saturday test-prep sessions but have no time to discuss current events like the presidential campaign.

"I'm appalled at how little my child knows about social studies," he said. "They're all obsessed with test prep."

Bloomberg, who is considering an independent presidential run, won mayoral control of schools in 2002 and has sought to make education reform a key part of his legacy.

James Liebman, chief accountability officer for New York City schools, devised the grading system for the city's 1.1 million-pupil school system.

Liebman said standardized tests are a good measure of whether students have learned what they should know.

"If children can't read and they can't do math, then the educational system and their school have failed them," he said.

For New York's middle and elementary schools, 85 percent of the grade is based on performance on standardized tests, while high schools are judged on graduation rates, New York State Regents exam scores and other factors.

The school letter grades are based on a complex formula that tracks students' test scores from year to year and measures each school against the system as a whole and against schools that are demographically similar.

A school with few pupils performing at grade level can get an A if its test scores improve, while a school where virtually all the students are reading, writing and calculating at grade level can get a C if its scores slip.

If a school gets a low grade two years in a row and scores poorly on a performance review, the principal's job may be be at risk.

Critics complain that Liebman, the system's architect, is a law professor with no background in education.

"All of their ideas are business ideas," said Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant U.S. secretary of education. "It's about incentives and punishment. Those are not educational ideas."

But those critics apparently are in the minority. Liebman pointed to a Quinnipiac University poll in which voters said the grades were fair by a margin of 61 to 27 percent.

"It's a system to provide information to parents to make their own judgments," he said.

Not all parents believe it's helpful.

State Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Democrat and a public school parent, said he worked to secure funding for a theater program but schools in his Queens district didn't want it between January and March because they're busy with test prep.

"This is hurting my son's education," he said. "It's all based on the faulty premise that school tests are measuring what kids are learning."