2007-11-15 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Grading Progress Of Public Schools Is Best Method- For Now
By Neil S. Friedman

By Neil S. Friedman

Last week the mayor and schools chancellor released the first-ever Progress Reports for most of the city's 1,200+ public schools. (Schools under review, due to past problems and those being phased out, were not assessed.)

Most of the news was rather positive - more than 58 percent of schools evaluated received grades of A or B - but some report cards were fairly gloomy with more than 50 schools given Fs, including two in Canarsie, as reported in the Courier's November 11th edition. If a turnaround isn't evident in the failing schools, two options could be changes in leadership or phasing them out, as has been done elsewhere.

Naturally, A-rated schools boasted and bragged, while schools rated C and several that barely passed with Ds were disappointed. Brooklyn had more than its fair share of passing grades, but Queens had the best overall and Staten Island the worst.

No sooner were the reports made public and available on the Department of Education's Web site than critics and cynics, who continue to oppose and berate mayoral control of city schools, surfaced to voice opposition. A few called them a sham, while others maintained that poor grades are stigmatizing.

Criticism in some cases was based on the fact that several previously high performing schools received grades they felt were unwarranted. However, if the naysayers bothered to check the criteria used to attain the grades they would have noted that 55 percent of the report cards were based on improvement of students on state reading and math tests from the previous year, not previous status. The portion of the evaluation based on school environment was the result of survey responses gathered last spring from teachers, students and parents.

Incidentally, Bloomberg's critics may not realize that in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released earlier this year, the results were not encouraging for New York State, which earned a modest C. Nearly two-thirds of the state's fourth graders have trouble reading and four of five eighth graders are math underachievers. City students traditionally place lower than students in the rest of the state, so perhaps the public school reports are not that much off the mark.

What's more, the DOE received the 2007 Broad (rhymes with road) Prize for Urban Education, the largest education prize in the country, in September. The $1 million award, which goes toward scholarships for high school seniors, honors large urban school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students.

Test results are the key technique educrats use to keep score, and, inaccurately, the basis of funding for the federal government's controversial No Child Left Behind program. But by using a letter grade as the sole determination for success there may be fewer children left behind, but at what cost to a well-rounded education?

By emphasizing reading and math upgrades, the program overlooks other subjects, and one recently spotlighted by presidential contender Sen. Hillary Clinton was this nation's increasing gap in science education. What about history and civics lessons?

As a student who experienced occasional brain freeze during critical tests, I believe too much emphasis is placed on exam results. While they may reasonably gauge what a student has retained in specific areas during the latest school phase, they do not consistently or accurately measure a pupil's total education, In spite of everything, there should be much more to an education, in addition to memorizing facts, dates and numbers. Under that method, other elements are neglected.

It wasn't until college that it dawned on me that in some areas of study my traditional public school education deprived me of a core understanding of what I had learned. And, because of my experience, I genuinely believe that high test scores, which I rarely received, should not necessarily be the ultimate measure of a successful student.

While it is imperative that an education should fill students' minds with knowledge, shouldn't it also instill a sense of direction to guide their lives? Moreover, by concentrating first and foremost on higher test scores, a comprehensive education could be lost in the progress.

Regardless of how one interprets the report cards, they obviously demonstrate that most city schools are making progress. More importantly, it is an opportunity for those schools - and their principals, teachers, students and parents - that received unwelcome grades not to dwell on the disappointment, but to aspire for improvement next time. And, hopefully, the top rated schools would be wise not to sit on their laurels and see a drop in rating for the next grading period.

It is particularly regrettable that critics blinded by their personal dislike for the mayor fail to recognize that New York City's schools have made considerable progress since Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein transformed the administratively-bloated and fiscally-wasteful Board of Education.

Besides, the best measure of a school isn't automatically substantiated by recurring test scores - whether they're high or low - but rather when a school community steadily progresses to approach that level and then sustains it.

In the last five years the mayor and the schools chancellor have taken the appropriate initial steps to reform and improve the quality of education in city schools, as evidenced by a 25-year high in graduation rates, but more time, beyond the mayor's second term, will be essential to see those changes completely phased in and achieve the ultimate goals.

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