2004-03-26 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach

I’m confused.

Of course, there are people who have read my columns for years who think that I am always confused.

Right now, however, I am more confused than usual.

What has caused all of this confusion are the results of the 2003 English Language Arts (ELA) tests, a high-stake test that can easily decide a student’s future path.

PS 114 in Belle Harbor (arguably the best school in the district) has 76.5 percent of its students meeting standards. It is ranked 62nd in the city out of more than 600 public schools. Because "similar schools" have an average of 82.3 percent of their students meeting standards, PS 114 is considered to be a "below average" school by the Depart ment of Education and the state.

On the other hand, PS 42, which has only 27.6 percent of its students meeting standards and ranked 544th in the city is considered to be an "average school" because similar schools have only 31 percent of their students meeting standards.

It would make a certain sense to group schools by demographics when rating them against each other, but many people look only at the label "below average" and decide not to send their child to that school. If PS 42 is "average" and PS 114 is "below average," then PS 42 must be the better school, they think.

Are they right? Of course not.

It gets stranger. PS 207 in Howard Beach is a K-8 school with much the same demographics as PS 114. PS 207 has 52.8 percent of its students meeting standards, about two-thirds as many as PS 114. Yet, PS 207 is rated as "average" by the DOE.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it’s because PS 114 is rated against elementary schools, while PS 207 is rated against K-8 schools, a much smaller pool (but growing each year and due to get much larger next September).

Even give that difference, however, it makes no sense.

PS 106 is my alma-mater. I graduated from that school in 1953, when the school was still a K-8 school.

That building has, for years, housed one of the two Astre Programs on the peninsula, a gifted program for elementary students.

PS 106 (which I consider a good school) has 62 percent of its students meeting standards (about fourteen percent less than PS 114) largely because of the Astre Program. It is considered the 169th best elementary school in the city. On the DOE’s list, it is considered "Far Above Average." Is it a better school than PS 114, which is "below average?" Of course not, and nobody in his or her right mind would suggest that.

The middle school picture in Rock away is bleak, as everybody already knows. That will probably change somewhat next year when the schools are redesigned under the plan put forth by Region Five Supervising Administrator Kathleen Cashin.

In the 2003 tests, Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway had 15.5 percent of its students meeting standards, earning it a rank of 175th in the city (out of 215 or so schools). MS 53 is rated as "Far Below Average" by the city. Middle School 180, which will eventually house the district’s "Scholar’s Academy, had 24.6 percent of its students meet standards, earning it a rank of 213th in the city and an "Average" rating. Middle School 198, as has been previously discussed, had only 8.1 percent of its students meet standards, earning it 213th ranking, third from the bottom, obviously earning it a rating of "Far Below Average."

There are only three schools in the district that have more than half of their students meeting standards on the ELA test – PS 47 (52.7 %) in Broad Channel, PS 106 (62 %) in Edgemere (with its Astre Program) and PS 114 (76.5 %) in Belle Harbor. PS 114 is rated "below average," PS 47 is rated as "average" and PS 106 is rated at "Far Above Average."

Out of the 14 schools in Rockaway, six are rated as "average" (PS 42, PS 43, PS 47, PS 183, PS 225 and MS 180), one is rated as "Far Above Average" (PS 106), four as "Below Average" (PS 104, PS 105, PS 114, and PS 215). Three are rated as "Far Below Average" (PS 197, MS 53 and MS 198).

What does it all mean?

As we once said in the U.S. Navy, "it beats the hell out of me."

Mark Twain once said, "There are three kinds of liars: liars, damned liars and statistics."

Any rating system that makes the best school in the district into one of the worst has to fall into one of Twain’s three categories.

Talk to teachers at MS 53 and they will tell you that the school is the best it has been in years.

Talk to teachers at PS 106 and they will tell you the same.

Talk to teachers at PS 114 and PS 47 and they will tell you that they have died and gone to heaven.

Talk to teachers at MS 198 and they will admit that the school is the worst that it has ever been and that the new principal has not a clue as to what a school is or how it should be run.

I have been told that more than 80 percent of the MS 198 staff has re quested a transfer at the end of the school year. Anybody who can get out will do so. That is not a very good recommendation for a school.

At the same time, nobody voluntarily leaves PS 114 or PS 106. They are places to finish a career, despite what the DOE says in its ratings.

The DOE loses credibility with the parents (as if the mayor and the chancellor care what the parents think) by rating schools in that way.

How are the ratings decided?

The printout from the DOE that records the ratings says, the "performance category is a ranking of schools within each Student Need Designation into one of five categories (Far Above Average, Above Average, Average, Below Average, Far Below Average) based on the difference between the percent meeting the standard for each school and for similar schools."

What does "similar schools" mean? The chart doesn’t say, and the Depart ment of Education seems to be reluctant to codify what that means , particulalry to the media. There are some indicators, however. that are built into the chart that is provided with the scores. Those indicators seem to be the only ones used in deciding what schools are "similar."

Among those indicators are "Percent eligible for free lunch, percent of special education, and the percent of English Language Learners (students who need language services).

Are those reliable indicators? I don’t believe so, but I am only an ex-teacher with 30 years in the system. What do I know about education in relation to the mayor and the chancellor, who have no educational experience?

They believe, for example, that the percent who get free lunch is an inidicator of the socioeconomic status of the students, but it if often not, because many parents refuse to return the forms, afraid to get involved with government in any way. That is the way it goes in New York City.

Liars, damned liars and statistics. Think about that for awhile.

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