Assessment Opinion

The Dumbing Down of ‘Accountability’

By Diane Ravitch — September 23, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I heard from a friend who attended the New York state Senate hearing where you testified. He said you were outstanding.

Just last week, the New York City Department of Education released its “report cards” for the schools. Every school was assigned a single letter grade from A to F; this was the second year that grades have been released. Fully 80 percent of the city’s schools got an A or a B, and 18 got an F (last year, 50 schools were graded F). Mayor Michael Bloomberg, not surprisingly, said that the large number of A’s and B’s and the small number of F’s showed the great strides that had been made on his watch.

Last year, the grades were controversial because a number of high-performing schools received a D or an F, having not been able to show much “progress” as compared with low-performing schools that were able to move their students up a few points.

The New York Timesreport on the grades quickly picked up their inconsistency with NCLB grades. Thirty percent of the schools that got an A were ranked failing schools by the state for NCLB purposes; 89 percent of the schools that got an F were in good standing as judged by NCLB. Professor Walt Haney of Boston College said that the fluctuations in grades from year to year, especially for small schools, do not accurately portray what is happening in the schools.

Closer analyses of the grades by Eduwonkette, by Aaron Pallas of Teachers College, and by Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools show that the grades are essentially meaningless, since they probably reflect statistical error rather than real changes in instructional practice. Among other things, the tests are not vertically scaled; they were not designed for value-added purposes to measure growth from year to year.

Just like last year, there were excellent schools that were given a low grade. This year’s most notorious example was P.S. 8, the school in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. This school has seen a tremendous revival in recent years. The mayor and Chancellor Joel Klein held a press event at the school last July to announce their plans to build an annex; they said the school was a model for the city, one of the most successful in the city. Now, two months later, the DOE gave P.S. 8 an F.

Here’s my two cents: The grading system is absurd on its face. It lacks face validity. The first set of grades was released in November 2007. Students took the state tests in January 2008. There were exactly 34 school days between the public release of the school grades and the next round of state testing! Now we are supposed to believe that in such a short period of time, some schools improved so dramatically that their grades rose from an F to an A? Such claims on the part of the city are ridiculous and make a mockery of “accountability.”

The best commentary on the grades, I thought, came from Ellen Foote, the principal at I.S. 289, which received a D last year only two weeks after being named a Blue Ribbon school from the U.S. Department of Education. Foote said that her staff made no changes after receiving a D. They just continued doing what they had always done, looking at internal assessments, science reports, writing samples, and math projects. When she learned that the school’s grade this year was an A, she laughed, according to a story in The New York Sun. “I was just rolling on the floor,” said the principal in response to the school’s A.

More such “accountability” and the whole concept of accountability will be discredited.


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.