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N.Y.C. Schools to Measure Gains, Not Just Raw Test Scores

By Lynn Olson — June 14, 2005 3 min read
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New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced plans last week to measure schools based on how much their students gain from one year to the next, in addition to the proportion who score at particular cutoffs on state tests.

With that change, the nation’s largest school district, enrolling more than 1 million students, will embrace what are known as “value added” analyses. Such models focus on improvements in student learning over time, rather than on the percent of students who score at an absolute achievement level in any given year. Proponents argue that those measures provide a fairer picture of how much schools actually contribute to student learning.

Earlier this spring, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said she might be willing to consider using such models to measure progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and a number of states and districts are exploring such approaches. (“States Hoping to ‘Grow’ Into AYP Success,” May 18, 2005.)

The expanded New York City accountability system, which Mr. Klein outlined in a June 7 luncheon speech hosted by the nonprofit Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, also will include a comprehensive assessment of each school’s learning environment, including such elements as parent involvement and the quality of work demanded of students.

Over the next several months, district officials will discuss their plans with educators, parents, and community groups, with a goal of incorporating the new approaches on school report cards beginning in September 2006. The timing would permit such “gains analyses” to be based on state reading and mathematics tests in grades 3-8, which must be in place this coming school year under the federal law.

‘Powerful’ Tool

In an interview last week, Mr. Klein described value-added analyses as providing “enormously powerful information that gives us a moving picture behind absolute scale scores.”

“Because not every student starts at the same level and not every school starts at the same level, being able to measure how much a student or a school has progressed over the course of a year is obviously important,” he said in his speech.

He also noted that students have a lot of room to improve within each achievement level on state tests—improvement that would be captured by looking at growth.

The new analyses will compare a school’s results, grade by grade, against the improvement in schools whose students start out in roughly the same place.

Looking at clusters of schools with similar starting points and identifying those that make great progress and those that lag further behind “tells us an enormous amount about the teaching and learning happening inside these individual buildings,” the chancellor said, “and gives us a powerful tool for working with educators to improve where necessary and to share best practices where appropriate.”

Mr. Klein described gains analyses as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, a focus on absolute achievement.

David N. Figlio, a professor of economics at the University of Florida in Gainesville, applauded using both lenses to look at school performance.

“Value-added analysis helps to reduce the likelihood that schools are evaluated on the basis of student and family characteristics, rather than on factors within the school’s control,” he said. “So this is a promising development, indeed.”

Because high school students do not take standardized tests in each grade, the district will use other measures to identify growth, such as cohort graduation rates, promotion rates from one grade to the next, and the accumulation of course credits.

The district plans to use incoming 9th graders’ performance on 8th grade tests to compare schools with reasonably similar levels of student achievement.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local teachers’ union, expressed caution, however, about whether value-added analyses would be done well or used as a tool to evaluate individual teachers.

“My concern is that a concept that is this complicated and this sophisticated and this potentially interesting will be dead on arrival,” she said. “It will be viewed as a weapon against teachers in schools.”

The Learning Environment Profiles, which are also under development, would provide common criteria for assessing the instructional environment in each city school, including such elements as the alignment between standards and curriculum; the quality of students’ work; the use of data to improve achievement; and parent involvement.

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