Accountability Opinion

An Absurd Grading System and Lessons Unlearned

By Deborah Meier — January 10, 2008 3 min read

Dear Diane,

I’ve been pondering your letter. The grading system is so absurd as to be intriguing. How could it have happened? It suggests a disconnect between the people making decisions “downtown” and reality of humongous proportions. Its source though puzzles me—since these are not dumb men. How could they have been led so far astray?

Ordinary common sense should have led Jim Liebman (the author of the NYC grading scheme) to have junked it before going public. For just the absurdities you pointed to. But ordinary common sense doesn’t work when you hire people to make important decisions who know literally nothing about the field itself. But disrespect for educators is so deep and pervading that none were apparently seriously consulted. No one apparently asked a school person: “Does this make sense?” “Are the results credible?”

It’s part of what makes me particularly nervous, Diane, at your belief that “national standards” would be based on genuine “expertise”. Not only do I have my concerns about the reliability of even honest experts—in the face of ordinary human bias—but we’re living in a world in which expertise is scorned when it comes to the fields you and I care about. Lawyers and financiers are at the top of the pyramid. Regardless of the nature of the decisions involved. The Kleins et als of the world will soon be grading scientists and scientific truths. This is not merely a phenomenon of right-wing “crazies”, but so-called sensible centrists—like Bloomberg et al.

Wacky indeed. But also scary.

It is not just test-score wacky either. In the high schools, 55 percent of the grade went to improvement in “courses passed”. Imagine how this encourages the dumbing down of courses!

When we started CPESS (Central Park East Secondary School) in 1985 we were above all interested, ala Ted Sizer’s seminal work, in building an educational model that totally bypassed the idea of graduation by credit hours (courses passed). We built instead a system of “accountability” based on a review of work accomplished and knowledge demonstrated in 14 fields. Ted Sizer called them “exhibitions”. It’s worth rereading Sizer’s books today. The old CPESS school got a waiver from the state of New York for its radical redesign. Kids took courses, but ala Cambridge, Oxford, and the world of doctoral candidacies, we came up with a graduation committee review and defense of student achievement. We claimed a student could graduate (however unlikely) who had failed every course, but passed all 14 subject reviews! (Fourteen was absurd, but that’s another story.) We told kids they might stay with us forever—we were in no hurry to get rid of them—but they would get our diploma only if they proved to us that they were ready. It meant that the teachers of course were there to prepare kids to do the kind of work that would meet our standards, which were—in turn—open for public review and critique.

We also engaged researchers to follow up on our students after they left us to see whether our standards held up in the real world. After all, accountability ought to be just another word for accepting responsibility for the impact of one’s work. (I keep reminding myself that democracy is built around the idea of accountable authority.)

Not only did CPESS have graduation committees for each student, but we brought in outside experts every year to examine different areas of practice—subject matter, as well our standards of evaluation. We videotaped sessions as well as archived work. Other schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools network tried other approaches built around the same underlying concepts of responsible authority. No two did it exactly the same way. A state-organized panel of independent experts—mostly in educational testing and assessment—concluded that graduates of these schools considerably outperformed comparable students. But maybe that’s irrelevant, as Nebraska’s Chris Gallagher notes, in a charming satire in Rethinking Schools (winter 2007-08). You can have so much more fun “sitting around and devising indexes and rankings and play with imaginary numbers.”

It’s brutally demoralizing to discover that a dozen years later the system has learned nothing from our work, and has at great cost installed such shabby and ill-informed judgments in the name of “accountability”.

Yes indeed, Diane, you have got it right.


P.S. There are still a few dozen schools in NY State benefiting from that late 80’s waiver. They are holding on by the skin of their teeth, constantly forced to compromise—or get Cs, Ds and Fs! How much longer can they hold out? I do not know, but I‘d not guess for long unless…But that’s for another letter, Diane.

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