Education Opinion

Seeking a Simpler System With More Complicated Grades

By Deborah Meier — November 15, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Amen. We agree, although it will be interesting to see where this takes us—re. alternatives. (For next week?)

Bard College President Leon Botstein’s outraged voice last week helped me sort out the issues raised by NYC’s new school grading system. (Disclosure: my granddaughter is a very happy student at Bard’s public high school.) He’s right that it is a unique school engaged in a unique project. He is wrong that this makes him different than most other schools—each of which is also “unique”. He claims the Regents exams are not good measures of their work. He’s not alone in such a view. Those who seek to offer currently unsuccessful students a serious intellectual experience face the same dilemma as Bard—even though Bard starts with some of the most successful young people.

In the old factory-model tradition we gave kids A’s to F’s, without comments or narratives. But even then each child got a separate mark for each individual course, for deportment and citizenship, etc. It was more complicated than the current NYC and Florida A-F grading system.

In fact, Chancellor Klein would note, the A-F scores are derived from the most complex scoring system. True enough. It takes into account in various weighted forms dozens of factors; and involves a great many different judgments made by mortal beings with a lot of power. For example, the independent school quality reviews, conducted during the year of all NYC schools, don’t count at all in the equation.

In the elementary schools, test scores in grades 3-5 are 85 percent of the grade; no points are added for passing grades. In high schools, passing courses (credit units) are counted heavily and test scores are not based on annual improvement but compare 8th grade scores to subject-specific Regents scores often taken many years later. (This leads the NYC Chancellor to now promote tests in K-2nd grade to be “fairer” to them—alongside the newly mandated IQ tests in kindergarten.) We’ve got the most complicated scoring system, hiding many judgments, to produce a simple-minded grade. What I think you and I might propose is a “simpler” system producing a more complicated school-specific grade.

What came to mind for me was how Consumer Reports tells us about cars. Generally, there are a whole host of charts providing “best buy” info in a variety of ways, alongside of (over the course of the year) narrative reports. The evaluations include performance-based measures, as well as data on size, gallons per mile, repair rates based on sampled surveys, etc. You can run down the charts and find stuff that matters or doesn’t to you the buyer.

Isn’t it odd that in a matter more personal than cars we think we can establish a rank order of schools that is more definitive than we can about cars? Despite disagreement in the nation (or city) on what constitutes a well-educated adult should we trust the “judgment” of our political leaders to decide this for us on a single scale? That’s what this “equation” is, after all.

At least Consumer Reports is a voluntary non-profit, not our boss who, despite protestations to the contrary, is not accountable to consumers or voters except in the most convoluted way—in the Mayor’s one and only bid for reelection. This is not “for advice only” info. Grades have imposed consequences. Nor can school leaders, like General Motors, take exception publicly. Nor is there any counter-balancing political body to provide checks and balances as is the case in most of our nation’s institutions.

NYC is becoming an example of what some marketplace enthusiasts like to call a “government” school, or a “state monopoly”. If the consumers are dissatisfied they can leave one public school for another (which is actually not reality based), or try their luck with a charter (lottery permitting) or private school (money permitting)? Or home school, I suppose. They are right to call our bluff if this is how we run “state” schools.

If Fordham Institute or CATO put out a rank list of best schools or systems we all know (or should), those lists express their biases; my list would, too. So does Bloomberg/Klein’s list. Mr. Bottstein is right to be upset, because in a top-down system the future of his school rests on their values and biases, hidden beneath their weighted equations.

I spent a day last week with a group of elementary school parents and staff—whose schools ranked A through F. No one there felt like being congratulated; they all felt demeaned. It’s simply harder for them to jump to Los Angeles the way Joe Torre did, and not fair to our kids whom I care about more than I do about Yankee fans.


P.S. It’s bad enough fighting city hall; it’s harder still to influence particular actions of one agency of the Department of Education in D.C.. Until we pause to consider more thoughtful forms of federal intervention I’ll be glad that Congress doesn’t rush into reauthorizing NCLB—do you agree, Diane?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.