New York City High School Results Questioned

Last week, report cards for New York City high schools were released for 2007-08. As was the case of the report cards for elementary and middle schools released in September, they beggar belief.

There were huge improvements from the previous year, much of which seem due to manipulation of the results by the New York City Department of Education rather than an actual increase in school performance.

There was a dramatic increase in schools receiving an A or B. The number receiving an A almost doubled, from 57 in 2006-07 to 112 in 2007-08. Overall, 39% of high schools received As, compared to 24% last year. The proportion of schools receiving an A or B was 83% compared to 65% in the previous year.

Several schools that were either failed (F) last year or given a D received a B this year. The number of schools receiving a D or an F fell by one third, from 21 to 14.

No doubt, Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, will be using these new high school results next week as evidence to convince Australian opinion writers and policy makers that reporting school results improves school performance.

However, it appears that the improved performance is largely due to manipulation by the New York City Education Department. The Department has simply reduced the cut-off point scores for each grading level. The cut-off score for an A was reduced from 67.6 last year to 64.2 in 2007-8 while that for a B was reduced from 48.8 to 43.5.

This has contributed to the higher proportion of high schools achieving an A or B. One New York researcher has shown that if the Department had used the same cut-off point scale as last year, only 71% of schools would have received an A or B

About two-thirds of the increase in the proportion of high schools that received an A or B was due to the reduction in the cut-off scores for each grade.

The same researcher also notes that the cut-off scores were reduced for elementary schools in 2007-08 as well and this change fully accounted for the increase in the proportion of elementary schools achieving an A or B.

The cut-off score for an A was reduced from 64 last year to 59.6 in 2007-8 while that for a B was reduced from 49.9 to 45.8. Last year, 70.5% of elementary schools were graded as A or B level. This year, 79.8% achieved A or B grade. However, if the Department had used the same cut-off point scale as last year, only 71.5% of elementary schools would merit an A or B, almost no change from last year.

Another issue about the high school results is whether the system of credit recovery has been manipulated to increase graduation rates, which are a key factor in the grading of high schools. Credit recovery involves allowing students who lack credits for high school graduation to make them up by participating in special programs. They were introduced to help reduce drop-out rates in US schools and are a legitimate means of helping offset the effects of disadvantage in education.

However, commentators such as Diane Ravitch, Professor of Education at New York University, and Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education at Columbia University, have raised questions about the standards required of some of these programs and whether they are being abused to ‘game’ graduation rates. An investigative report in the New York Times 11 April 2008 found that principals and teachers are under tremendous pressure to improve graduation rates and credit recovery is a way of getting quick improvement.

The reduction of the cut-off scores for grading schools, together with questions about the use of credit recovery programs to improve graduation rates, mean that latest high school progress reports in New York City cannot be taken at face value. Like the elementary and middle school reports issued earlier, the results strain credibility. The methodology used to prepare reports for New York City schools is so intricate and arcane that it is open to manipulation in a variety of ways to artificially boost results.

The only independent check on student achievement is the National Assessment of Education Progress test results administered by the US Department of Education. These show that student achievement in New York City has stagnated since 2003 and that the achievement gaps between Blacks and Whites, between Hispanics and Whites and between low and high income students are as large as they were when Joel Klein took charge of the New York City public school system.

Trevor Cobbold

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