Gillard’s Favourite School Reporting Model is Totally Discredited

Julia Gillard’s beloved New York City school reporting system has been totally discredited following the release of new letter grades for New York City elementary and middle schools last week. The new results have been received with utter disbelief and ridicule by the New York media, academics and parent groups.

Of the 1058 schools graded, 889, or 84%, scored an A compared to fewer than 400 last year. Some 97% of schools received an A or B compared with 60% in 2007. A mere 27 received C’s, D’s or F’s. Only two schools received an F, down from 35 in 2007, and five schools scored a D. All the schools that were failed last year and remained open received an A or B this year.

The New York Post, which has supported the report card system, referred to an “avalanche of A’s” which simply beggar the imagination and contrary to plain common sense..

The New York Times said that the whopping 97% of schools receiving A’s or B’s raised new questions about the usefulness of the grading system.

According to the New York Daily News, experts say that the state tests are getting easier to pass.

Columbia University’s Aaron Pallas said:

When 84% of the schools receive an A—the top grade, which everyone understands to signify excellence—what useful information about the school’s relative performance is being conveyed to parents, students, educators, and others with a stake in our schools? Not much, in my view.

Leonie Haimson, writing for the New York City Public School Parents blog, called the results absurd, silly and ridiculous

This is grade inflation that would put any human being other than Joel Klein to hide his head in shame.

Haimson said that the absurdity of the grades this year derive from two profound flaws. First, 85% of the grade is based on one year’s gains or losses in test scores, which experts have found to be statistically unreliable and extremely erratic. Second, the state tests have become so much easier and their scoring so lax that students can pass them without reading the questions – as long as they manage to fill in a few bubbles along the way.

New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, claimed that the new school results reflected great progress in student achievement and said that I’m thrilled that so many schools earned an A. He was unrepentant in the face of the criticism, saying that the high marks given to nearly every school did not mean that the grading system had lost its value. He told a press conference that there is nothing wrong with anything.

Even Klein’s arch supporters could not swallow this. An editorial in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post told Klein: “Fix it, Joel”.

Klein said that the cut-off scores for the letter grades would be increased next year. However, they were increased in 2008-09 and more than compensated for the reduction in cut-off scores in 2007-08. However, even this did not stem an overwhelming increase in the number of schools achieving A’s and B’s.

The dramatic increase in New York City school results over the past three years demonstrate one of the most serious problems with using school results for school accountability, namely, ever rising test scores. According to testing expert, Daniel Koretz, Professor of Education at Harvard University, this is the “dirty secret of high-stakes testing”. In his recent book on educational testing, Measuring Up, Koretz states that the good news of rising test scores is often more apparent than real:

Scores on the tests used for accountability have become inflated, badly overstating real gains in student performance. Some of the reported gains are entirely illusory, and others are real but grossly exaggerated. The seriousness of this problem is hard to overstate.[p. 235]

Apart from setting easier tests, test score inflation also results from different ways of rorting school results. This includes outright cheating by helping students with answers during tests or changing their answers and spending hours of classroom time teaching to the test and practising tests.

When test scores are inflated, it leads to an illusion of progress and misleading comparisons of schools. Individual school results will be inflated by different degrees and people can therefore draw the wrong conclusions from a comparison of school results.

So, Julia Gillard’s much admired school reporting model is now treated with scorn and disparagement. She should take warning from this, as should other Australian education ministers. Publishing school results to measure school progress and make schools accountable inevitably corrupts their usefulness and misleads parents and the public.

Trevor Cobbold

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