Accountability Opinion

Grading Schools

By Diane Ravitch — January 08, 2008 4 min read
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Editor’s note: Bridging Differences returns today from its holiday break with this entry from Diane Ravitch.

Dear Deb,

Let’s talk about grading schools and about when it is appropriate to close schools. It seems that the accountability idea has become the overrriding passion in American education: Everyone must be held accountable, everyone must have their feet held to the fire on a regular basis, and every decision will be based on test scores. Students better raise their scores or they fail; teachers better raise their students’ scores, or they will not get a bonus and might get some sort of sanction; and principals must see to it that their school scores continually go up, or they may be fired (or, if the scores do rise, the principals are in line for fat bonuses).

Hardly a day passes without a story from another school district about the adoption of bonus pay for teachers and/or principals, as well as other incentives or sanctions based solely on scores. Houston just got a big sum from the Gates Foundation for merit pay, and the state of New York just received a big grant from Gates to install a new value-added accountability system. It seems to be happening everywhere.

I find myself (once again) in the uncomfortable position of seeing ideas that I have supported as part of a broader set of reforms turn into unhealthy obsessions. I feel like someone who said that people should wear hats and then turned around to discover that people were talking about nothing else but their hats and walking around naked. Maybe there is a better metaphor to express my frustration about the new fanaticism about testing and accountability as the key element of the corporate culture imported into American education. I’ll rely on our readers to suggest a better metaphor. As I recall, looking back on what I have written over many years, I always believed that a strong curriculum, sound instruction, and good working conditions were necessary preconditions to testing and accountability.

Deb, I think that one of the things that has occasionally drawn us together is that we both have a vision about education, what it might be, even when we disagree about this or that detail. Now I find that no one seems to talk about education anymore, just testing and accountability. Is it the market mentality that has taken control? Is it the business/corporate model that is driving all discussion of policy? Why is everyone submitting to these mindless, soul-less accounting schemes?

Take the latest grading system to come from New York City. Since our mayor apparently plans to run for president and intends to cite his education reforms, we should write about what is actually happening here. Our chancellor hired a law school professor to design the city’s grading plan. The grading system gives each school a single letter, from A to F. This is no report card, which would measure inputs and outputs on a variety of particulars. Nope, just a single letter grade. Imagine if your child came home from school with a letter grade instead of a report card that pointed to her or his strengths and weaknesses; I certainly would find it objectionable.

The grading system has produced some very strange results. More than half of the 400 schools that are on the state or federal list of weak schools received an A or B from the city’s Department of Education. A school that is on the state’s very small list of “persistently dangerous” schools was awarded an A. At the same time, 99 schools that are in good standing with the state or federal government received a D or an F. Some schools that are recognized as outstanding schools in their community received a D or an F.

How did these strange results come about? The city Department of Education decided to base the scores overwhelmingly on changes in state test scores over one year, and to place most emphasis on “progress.” Thus a school where 90 percent of the students met state standards in the first year, but only 87 percent in the next year might get a D or an F. And a school where 20 percent of the students met the standards in the first year, but saw an increase of a few percentage points in the next year might get an A or B.

Thus some really outstanding schools have been stigmatized as failures, while some very low-performing schools boast an A or B. This makes no sense to anyone, but the city has taken its new and unproven scoring system and decided to close 14 schools that received a D or F. Now, maybe these are truly awful schools, but some of them have gotten passing marks from both the state and feds. Some apparently are beloved community institutions. We will see what replaces them. My guess is charter schools and small schools. Will they be better? Who knows?

There remain many questions. Not only whether the scoring system is a valid measure of anything, but whether the tests on which they are based are sound enough to sustain these weighty decisions that determine the future of a school community. Somehow it strikes me that schools should be given extra support to help them get better, that closing them should be a last resort, not a first step.

What do you think?


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