Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Report Cards Spell Closings

BY ELIZABETH GREEN - Staff Reporter of the Sun

November 6, 2007

Principals could be fired and operations shut down altogether at the nearly 150 public schools to which the city gave D and F grades yesterday, and students at the 50 F schools are getting a green light to transfer into a new school as soon as September, school officials said yesterday.

The city schools chancellor, Joel Klein, said school closures, the process where the city phases schools out of existence, dissolving all leadership and teaching positions and sending students elsewhere, could come at a rate unmatched in the last five years. Between 5 and 15 phaseouts have been announced during each year Mayor Bloomberg has held control of the schools.

"Is this a wake-up call for the people that work there? You bet. That's what we're trying to do," Mr. Bloomberg said yesterday, announcing the grades, letters A to F, that are the result of a complicated formula taking into account a school's standardized test scores, graduation rates, and a few other measures.

A careful scouring of information on failing principals — their track record, the number of years they have spent at a school, their school's test score history — is already under way, Mr. Klein said. Meanwhile, as considerations about employment and school closure are mulled, he said schools that received failing grades are also being helped.

The best-ranked schools in the city, those that received As and a high rating on a second qualitative review by outside consultants, are being asked to become "demonstration schools" that can use extra funding to set up sites where they will share ideas and strategies with schools around the city.

Principals are also being urged to log into a new citywide data system, known as ARIS, where they can search out schools that have produced better results with similar kinds of students. For instance, a comparison chart drawn up by school officials highlights schools a TriBeCa middle school, I.S. 289, could look to for ideas on how to raise its D next year. The chart shows 11 other middle schools with high-scoring students that were able to win A's and B's by helping more students, especially low performers, make progress on math and reading tests.

Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein said yesterday that they were prepared for complaints, which they said would come from schools just as they do from students, and they did come quickly.

A parent advocate who has long argued against standardized tests, Jane Hirschmann, stood up during yesterday's press conference to complain about the report cards' heavy emphasis on test scores, which contribute 85% of each grade.

Hours later, the president of the city principals' union, Ernest Logan, sent an e-mail message to principals saying that he is holding off support of the report cards for now. "The ramifications are too great, especially for students in schools that may be mislabeled and the people whose jobs may be on the line," he said.

The president of the teachers' union, Randi Weingarten, also criticized the report cards, saying data in schools is fine — but only as long as it is used to help schools improve, not to punish them.

Behind the complaints was a confusion over how many schools beloved by parents and with solid, longstanding reputations for excellence had received poor marks.

An author of guides to the city's public schools, Clara Hemphill, said she chose not to include the high school that topped the city's ratings, Manhattan Bridges, in her guide of the city's best because of its low attendance rate, 75%. While several schools in Hemphill's guide were rated high, others got poor marks. P.S. 89 in Battery Park City received a C although more than 90% of its students passed a math test last year, and P.S. 3 in Staten Island got an F though more than 98% of students passed the math test.

Ms. Hemphill said parents would be better off relying on their own judgments. "My advice to parents is: Trust your own knowledge," she said. "Staring at a computer screen and trying to figure out what's going on in the school is not all that useful."

Some grades also contradicted state assessments of which schools are failing, or conflicted with quality reports written by outside reviewers last year.

The discrepancies have to do in part with a deliberate twist in how the grades are calculated. While state assessments are based on the number of students who reach proficiency on state exams, the city reports follow what is called a "growth model," with the amount of progress students show from year to year making up 55% of a school's grade. They also focus heavily on whether low performers show gains.

The executive director of a lobbying group, Democrats for Education Reform, Joseph Williams, said parents should take low grades seriously. "It's more productive, instead of being defensive about it, to talk about how you get it to a B and then to an A," he said.

Mr. Williams said the success of the grades will hinge on whether Mr. Bloomberg follows through on the grades with tough consequences.
Mr. Williams said that at his son's Manhattan elementary school, P.S. 11 on 21st Street, a C grade was appropriate — and probably higher than the school would have gotten two years ago, before the arrival of a new principal.

Some principals are already using the report cards as inspiration for change. At the city's elite exam high schools, which were compared against each other in the report cards, principals have begun meeting regularly to share ideas. An early product of their sessions is a conference scheduled for today where teachers will convene for workshops and discussions, the principal at the Bronx High School of Science, Valerie Ready, said.

John Galvin, the assistant principal at a popular Brooklyn middle, I.S. 318, said his school's leadership met to discuss their new grade, a B, but decided not to make any changes. Moving to an A, he said, would require spending many hours on small improvements, moving students who are already passing tests to get just one or two more questions right on a standardized test.

He said test prep would leave students bored, not stronger learners. "We're not going to give up doing art, music, chess, robotics — all the great programs we have during the day that gifted kids are interested in — just to make sure they get a better or equal score than they got the year before," he said. "We do care about the test, but not enough to sacrifice."

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