Education Opinion

Bad Grading in NYC

By Diane Ravitch — November 13, 2007 3 min read
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You mentioned the new grading system. Our readers may not be aware of what is happening, so let me recapitulate the system as best I can. “Best I can,” to be sure, because it is not a transparent system and its calculations are extremely obscure. At bottom, it amounts to this: Each school in the city school district (but not charters) is given a letter grade from A through F. The letter grade is based mainly on the state’s standardized test scores. The grade is comprised of both performance (the school’s scores) and progress (the school’s value-added). Added in are “quality reviews,” in which each school is judged by outside reviewers for such things as its environment, as well as surveys completed by parents and teachers. (Editor’s note: See Diane’s Nov. 14 addendum on the environment component.)

This may not be 100 percent accurate, as the formula is complex. But observers have faulted the system because the underlying tests on which most of the grade is based were not designed for this purpose. Year-to-year fluctuations in scores make such judgments questionable. There is also reason to wonder about the value of giving a school a single letter grade, which stigmatizes some schools and puffs up others. It would be akin to giving a student a single letter grade, and saying in effect, “you are a D student,” when it would make far more sense to give grades or evaluative judgments about a student’s performance in a variety of subjects, which may be quite variable.

In this new system, which is related to the Florida system of grading schools, some highly reputable schools have received a B or C or even in one case, an F. The high-performing schools are penalized by the grading system because so many of them are near the ceiling and are likely to experience fluctuations down a few points, which condemns them. A much-admired school in Staten Island, for example, received an F, even though its students regularly had the highest scores in its district; but in the last year, the proportion of students who passed the state tests had declined, not by a lot, but nonetheless it was a decline. So this well-respected community institution was graded an F.

Meanwhile, a number of schools that have been identified by the state as failing schools have received an A or B. The Village Voice reported that Stuyvesant High School, one of the competitive schools that is a jewel in the city’s crown, initially received a C, but someone talked the higher-ups into raising the grade to an A. I suppose if the grading system had actually awarded a C to Stuyvesant, the grading system would have been laughed out of town. Meanwhile The New York Times reported that Bard Early College High School has protested its C and the president of Bard, Leon Botstein, has made a personal appeal to the chancellor to raise the school’s grade to an A.

The best deconstruction of the grading system that I have seen to date is in a marvelous blog called eduwonkette.com. This is an anonymous scholar who is admittedly female, but has otherwise decided, for reasons of prudence, to keep her identity secret. Her analyses of policy decisions have been brilliant, bold, and incisive. Many people are talking about her, because she usually adds a sharp dimension to whatever is in the news. She is wise to remain anonymous. Her bottom line: the methodology used to grade schools is fundamentally inaccurate and invalid.

Parents in some districts are outraged, and educators in outstanding schools that received low grades are demoralized. It is hard to know what the value of this exercise is. The school system’s leaders seem to believe that shame and humiliation will incentivize the staff in low-grade schools to do a better job and that this will be sufficient to promote improvement. Of course, the best way for a school to raise its grade will be to focus on the state tests even more than they have done up till now. Some principals will realize that it is time to toss out the arts, physical education, history, and any subject other than reading and math. The only thing that counts is making progress on the state tests.

I don’t know if we write too much about New York City, but we have reasons. For one, we both know this system well. For another, New York City is now being touted as a national model after winning the Broad award. Caveat emptor.


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