High Farce in New York City

Remember Joel Klein? He is New York City’s Schools Chancellor whom Julia Gillard, as Federal Education Minister, brought to Australia in 2008 to spruik New York’s school reporting system as a model for Australia.

Gillard claimed that reporting individual school results in New York are “working” and have produced “remarkable outcomes”. She said that there has been continual improvement in student achievement in New York City under Klein.

Well, Klein’s model has degenerated into high farce and with it so too has Gillard’s credibility.

First, there was the unbelievable improvement in school results that were attributed to the incentives created for school improvement by publishing school results. In 2009, 85% of New York City elementary and middle schools received an ‘A’ grade, compared to only 23% in 2007; 97% achieved an A or a B grade compared to 60% in 2007. A mere 27 out of 1058 schools that were graded received C’s, D’s or F’s in 2009.

Klein claimed that the new school results reflected great progress in student achievement: “I’m thrilled that so many schools earned an A”.

However, the results were received with disbelief and scorn. Diane Ravitch, Professor of Education at New York University and former US Assistant Secretary of Education, called the results “bogus”. She said that New York’s school reporting model is a system of “institutionalised lying” which produces “rigged and fraudulent” results.

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which supported the report card system, referred to an “avalanche of A’s” which “simply beggar the imagination” and are “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”.

Even the New York Post couldn’t stomach the results, despite being an ardent supporter of the report cards. An editorial told Klein: “Fix it, Joel”.

The New York State Board of Regents, which is responsible for the state education system, announced that the pass scores for the 2010 tests would be increased. It also appointed an independent review of the state tests by a testing expert from Harvard University. The results of the review were published last July. It found that the New York state tests were too easy and had inflated student results, thus confirming what many critics had argued.

The 2010 state test results were also released in July and showed a stunning drop in the proportion of students who are proficient in mathematics and English. More than half of New York City’s public school students failed the English tests this year, and nearly half failed in maths. Just 42% of all elementary and middle school students passed the English tests, compared to 69% last year and 54% passed the mathematics tests compared to 82% last year. The declines erased nearly all the gains made in the past four years in New York City.

As a result of the state’s decision to increase the pass scores for 2010, the New York City Education Department decided to change its school grading system. An edict issued from the schools office in January said that 25% of elementary and middle schools would get A’s, 30% B’s, 30% C’s, 10% D’s, and the bottom 5% of schools getting F’s. In April, this was changed to 25% to get A’s; 35% B’s; 25% C’s; 10% D’s; and 5% F’s.

So, no matter if 40% or only 10% of schools warranted A’s, it was pre-determined that 25% would get A’s. If the scores of, say, 20% of schools warranted a fail grade, only 5% would be graded as such.

What a nonsense system! New York’s school grading system was always highly arbitrary, misleading and unfair, but this edict turned it into high farce.

Yet, there was even more nonsense to come. The Department also decided to limit the extent to which a school’s grade could fall.

Schools which in the top quarter of the city based on their students’ average math and reading test scores would get no lower than a C. This move was designed to over-ride the impact of the other factors (school environment and the change in student results) used in the grading of schools which may cause a school with high average reading and maths results to be graded D or F. In effect, part of the grading system was to be selectively ignored for these schools.

Further restrictions were added only days before the 2010 school grades were released. The Department announced that any school that received an A in 2009 cannot receive a grade lower than a C in 2010 while any school that received a B in 2009 cannot receive a grade lower than a D.

This week school grades for New York City elementary and middle schools were released. Guess what? They were largely in line with what had been pre-determined: 25% got an A; 35% received B’s; 35% got C’s; 4% got D’s and 1% got F’s. Grades fell for about 70% of all schools compared to their 2009 grade.

The decision to restrict the fall in grades for schools which received an A or B in 2009 benefitted about 10% of schools whose grades would have been a D or F. Sixteen per cent of schools would have been graded D or F instead of only 5% as published.

All this has left New Yorkers bewildered. Every year since the report cards were introduced, changes have been made to how schools are graded with the result that school grades bounce up and down from one year to the next. Few parents can have any confidence in their school’s grade any more.

Leonie Haimson, a leading critic of Klein, said:

The invalid nature of the school grades are just one more indication of the fundamentally dishonest nature of the Bloomberg/Klein administration, and yet another reason for the cynicism, frustration and justifiable anger of teachers and parents.

As she says, it is the school grading system itself and Joel Klein who deserve the big ‘F’.

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