2008-09-26 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

School Report Card Edition - How Can The DOE Be So Wrong?
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Ok, what's the most important thing going on in our public schools?

Raise your hand if you think you know the right answer.

What? You in the front row, you say that learning is the most important thing going on in our schools.

Perhaps.

You there in the back, you say that education and understanding how to find and process information to make a decision is the most important thing.

Interesting.

You, back there at Tweed Courthouse. What is your answer, because, after all, you are the only one who counts?

You say that testing well on the two high-stakes standardized tests is the most important thing going on in the schools. Prove it to me!

What's that you say, just look at the school report cards, and they will prove that the standardized tests are the be-all and end-all of today's public schools.

You know what, you're right and you get an A for the term. The rest of you will just have to take the scraps.

Of course, that classroom exchange never took place, but it might well have, because it is clear from the second round of school report cards that learning and thinking are passé, and only test results count.

There are three major criteria built into the public school report cards, and they clearly prove without a doubt what is most important to the mayor and the chancellor.

They have nothing to do with the education that our children will need to become productive adults. Nothing to do with science or our government, becoming a voter or how to think and analyze information. They are all about test scores.

According to the DOE, those three criteria - Environment, Performance, and Progress are the three indicators of how well a school is doing.

The Environment grade is based on the surveys sent back to the DOE by teachers, students and parents. I have to tell you that, in many schools, including some in Rockaway, kids were bribed with pizza parties and more free time to entice both the kids and their parents to return positive surveys. What, you say that's not possible? If you believe that wasn't going on, I have a bridge you might like to purchase - or perhaps some stock in Goldman-Sachs. On the report cards, Environment counts for 15 points out of 100. That's what the mayor and chancellor think about what the parents, kids and teachers think of their schools.

The second criterion, Performance, counts for 25 points. What is performance? Do kids have to show that they can think, that they can process information, that they can write a coherent essay? No, the only measurement is how well the students do on the English Language Arts and Mathematics tests.

The third criterion is Progress, and that measures the academic achievement on the standardized tests from year to year.

Progress is worth 60 points, far and away the most important criterion of all.

The problem is, using progress to grade schools where the great majority of students are already at or near the top possible scores, has a negative impact on those schools.

For those of you who remember when students got grades ranging from 0 to 100 or alphabet grades such as A, B, C, D and F, that is no longer operative.

Today, kids are graded on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 as the lowest and 4 as probably perfect.

There is no way, therefore, for a school such as the Scholars' Academy, which takes only students who achieve at a high 3 or 4 level on the standardized tests, to show any progress at all.

On the other hand, a school with lots of kids who are on level 1 and move to level 2 is favored because it shows lots of progress.

That may be true, but which is the "better school," translates for parents into "which school would you want your kid to attend?"

For example, the Scholars' Academy, the District 27 gifted program school, received a grade of B. It is arguably the best middle school in the district and accepts only students who achieved a high 3 or a 4 on the high-stakes test.

That school received 12.6 out of 15 on the Environment scale; 22.5 out of 25 on the Performance scale, but only 25.3 points out of 60 on the progress scale, which probably comes from the fact that the great majority of kids in the school are already on the top of the scale and have no place to go but down.

PS 114 in Belle Harbor was once known as one of the top ten elementary schools in the city back in the days when they measured such things realistically, when education and not scores really counted.

I believe that it is still the best elementary school in Rockaway, and parents pay a large premium to live in the school zone.

PS 114 got a C in this year's report card run, down from B last year.

PS 114 got 8.4 points out of 15 in the Environment category, 16.1 points out of 25 in the Performance category (many of its brightest grade 5 to 8 students go on to the Scholars' Academy), and only 14.8 points out of 60 in the Progress category, again because many of its students have no place to go but down.

The two best schools in Rockaway, at least by my reckoning, got downgraded because they are too good.

At the other end, we have MS 53, a school at which I taught for more than 20 years and the school my two nowgrown children attended.

The principal of that school, Claude Monereau, and I have a history.

When he was an assistant principal at Beach Channel High School, he wanted the principal position so badly that he sparked a racial incident at the school that led to a walkout and fires throughout the building.

The region had to get him out of the school, so they sent him to IS 53 to assist the retiring principal. Then, they made him principal and named him an Empowerment principal. He denuded the school of most of the good teachers and brought in his cronies.

The school was named one of the worst in New York City three years after he took over.

Now, his school got a B on the new report cards.

To which school would you rather send your kid, the Scholars' Academy or MS 53?

Don't raise your hands. I already know the answer, and therein lies the falsity of the school report cards.

The parents get it, but the people at Tweed and the mayor do not.

That is the shame of it, and they want to retain mayoral control.

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