One of New York’s most prominent educators, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, has joined the chorus of criticism over the City Department of Education’s blunt new A through F rating system for public schools, saying in an interview yesterday that it was “reductive” and “depressing.”
But while most city schools received grades this week, Bard High School Early College, associated with Mr. Botstein’s college, did not. Its grade and those of 22 other schools were reported as “under review” by the department. In fact, Mr. Botstein said, he learned last week that the school had earned a tentative grade of C on a draft copy of the report card — even though its graduates earn not just a high school diploma, but two years’ worth of college credits. And he is holding out hope that the grade will be changed.
Mr. Botstein said he sent e-mail messages to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and James Liebman, the department’s chief accountability officer. School officials agreed to meet with Bard officials next week. “I appealed to the chancellor in an effort to tell him to remove this year’s assessment so that a better mode of assessment could be put together,” Mr. Botstein said.
The Bard high school is unique within the city, as the only high school where all graduates leave with a two-year associate degree. Nonetheless, Mr. Botstein’s basic argument is being echoed throughout the city by educators and parents at some schools that, like his, are nontraditional and high-performing. They say that while the new rating system, which is driven by standardized test scores, may be a good way to measure whether schools are imparting basic knowledge, it is less useful and even harmful on the higher end of the performance spectrum.
Mr. Botstein said he respected the chancellor’s need to turn around a failing school system, but urged that he not do it at the expense of innovation and excellence.
“You have a system that is broken and that is failing, and they are desperately trying to improve it. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “There are a couple of places, and we’re one of them, that really do something different and well.
“Not all plants are weeds,” he said, “so why are you spraying insecticide on the whole thing?”
Mr. Botstein’s appeal to the chancellor was first reported yesterday in The Village Voice online. In an interview from London, he said the criteria used to rate high schools under the new system — based on a complex formula that gives more weight to progress than performance and compares schools with similar populations against one another — seemed particularly out of sync with his school’s mission.
That is because a key factor in students’ scores is state Regents examinations. And at Bard High School Early College, he said, the emphasis is on helping students pass the Regents as quickly as possible — they do so by 10th grade — and by the time they are juniors, they are off to college-level coursework, which he said the city does not take into account.
He said of the Regents, “They’re to a lower standard, and we won’t teach to the test.”
The high school is on the Lower East Side, and Bard plans to open a second one, in Queens, in September.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Liebman said Bard’s grade was not released on Monday because, like the 22 other schools under review, some of its data had not been properly entered. He said the ratings system, which city officials praised as comprehensive and accurate, was equally applicable to schools at all levels of achievement.
“We’ve got to go through the process of analyzing the new data that they’ve supplied that wasn’t filed on time,” he said. “Then we’re going to take a look at that and see what kind of a difference it makes.”
Mr. Botstein has “absolutely not” received any preferential treatment, Mr. Liebman added.
“Just as we have given every other school, we will give Bard the opportunity to convince us that we have made a mistake that in some way puts them on an uneven playing field,” he said. “We want to measure what every school contributes to kids.”
Mr. Liebman said Bard’s grade could well be released before the city’s meeting with Mr. Botstein, saying, “The meeting is coming up very soon, and I don’t know which of those will come first.”
But Mr. Botstein said he would be “very surprised” if the grade came out before the meeting, because the department “acknowledged that we were a different case.”
“They’re in a tough bind, and I have a lot of respect for them,” he said.
“Let’s say we’re a vegetarian restaurant and you’re telling me our meat is not good. I’m telling you we don’t serve meat. We’re not in the meat business.”