2009-09-11 / Front Page

'A' Grade For Majority Of Rockaway Schools

By Howard Schwach

T he good news is that 75 percent of all Rockaway elementary schools got a school report card with an A grade from Chancellor Joel Klein this year.

The bad news is that a growing number of media outlets and individuals believe that "grade inflation" has hit the Department of Education.

Only three local schools received a grade lower than A on the report cards, which were released by the DOE last week and can be found at the agency's website.

PS 47 in Broad Channel received a grade of B.

PS 215 in Wavecrest and the peninsula's only charter school, the Peninsula Preparatory Academy in Arverne, each received a C.

PS 225 in Rockaway Park, which is being closed this year in favor of three small schools, was not rated.

There were no local schools with either a D or an F grade.

In fact, there were no schools in the entire city that earned an F grade this year.

Eighty-four percent of the elementary and middle schools in the city received A's, up from 38 percent last year.

Ninety-seven percent of the city's elementary and middle schools got either an A or a B on their report card.

That led many to view the report card grades as inflated.

"Stupid Card Tricks," read the headline on the Daily News editorial the day after the report cards were released.

"School Stats Too Good To Be True," trumpeted the New York Post.

"An Avalanche Of A's" headlined the Post's editorial the same day.

"The dramatic grade inflation has rendered 2009's report nearly meaningless to thousands of parents who look to the summaries for guidance as to which schools serve kids best," said the Daily News editorial.

One school supervisor, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the chancellor, said that there are a number of reasons that so many schools got an A.

"First of all," the supervisor said, "the mayor has staked his reputation on improving the schools, so he has to show improvement to get reelected.

"To do that, the DOE has dumbed down the tests. At one time, it took more than 35 correct answers on the ELA [English Language Arts] test to get a Level 2 [Grade Level]. Now, it takes only 22 correct answers to get Level 2.

"In addition," the supervisor said, "the way the numbers are crunched has changed so that a school with far fewer points can get a higher grade."

According to the progress reports, a school now needs 68 points out of 100 for an Agrade and 54 out of 100 for a B grade.

The report card does not list absolute standardized test scores for each school, instead giving the percentage of those who achieved Level 2 measured against all the schools in the city and against a "Peer Horizon," a number of schools that the DOE considers similar in socio-economic and racial makeup.

The ELA scores were released in May, however, and matching the actual scores against the report cards shows a discordance, experts say.

For example, PS 42 in Arverne got an A with 77.2 points.

It received 8.1 points out of 15 for "School Environment," measured by the school surveys that are returned from parents, staff and students. It received 14.3 points out of 25 for "Student Performance" and 48 out of 80 for "Student Progress." It also received 6.8 points of "Additional Credit" for doing well against its peer horizon.

Yet, ELA scores obtained by The Wave show that only 51 percent of its third-graders, 41.5 percent of its fourth-graders, and 36.9 percent of its eighth-graders are reading at Level 2.

Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway, which is on the state's list of failing schools, also received an A rating from the city with 96.6 points out of 100.

The school's report card shows amazing gains over last year's testing, with increases of more than 50 percent by bilingual and special education students.

Yet the reading scores show that only 58.7 percent of seventh-graders and 48.2 percent of eighth-graders are reading on grade level.

Critics are skeptical of the gains.

"The latest school grades released by the city's Education Department are bogus," said Diane Ravitch, an education professor and nationally-known expert on big-city education. "Four schools listed as persistently dangerous by the state got an A from the city and three of those deeply troubled schools got a B. Three of the schools that the city wants to close because of low performance got an A. Every school that got an F last year got an A or B this year. The report card system makes a mockery of accountability. Nobody can be held accountable when everybody gets an A or B."

"There is a big debate about whether the bar has been lowered over time in ways that inflate the percentage of students that appear to be passing," said sociology professor Jennifer Jennings of New York University. "It's unacceptable that no one really knows whether our schools are getting better."

State officials have already announced that the Board of Regents and the State Education Department plan to review the tests.

The impetus for that review, in part, was due to the fact that four of the schools in the state list of "persistently dangerous schools" got an A from the city, with two others on the list getting a B grade.

A spokesperson for the DOE said that the report cards realistically represent the improvement of the city's schools over the past year and that parents can rely on those reports to make school decisions for their children.

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