2011-10-07 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Incredulity Over School Report Cards
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Go back and look at the 2009 school report cards.

That year, 13 Rockaway public schools were rated as A schools, the top of the heap. Only one school was considered to be “failing.”

Now, just two years later, six schools are rated as A schools and several have to be considered as failing.

I like to use Middle School 53 in Far Rockaway as an example for the foolishness of the report cards for two reasons: I taught there for 25 years and the school’s rise and fall has been the highest, deepest and swiftest of any school in the district.

In 2009, MS 53 was one of the A schools, with 96.5 points out of 100 on its report card.

That score was built on an illusion – that a large number of students were making great progress in both the reading and mathematics standardized tests. I say that the rise in the scores was an illusion because even the state now admits that the scores did not “represent the reality of what was going on in the classroom.”

So, embarrassed by the fact that a massive number of city schools got A’s even though everybody knew that was phony, the state reset the “cut score” – the number of right answers necessary to reach proficiency, to where it should have been all along and tests scores dropped like stones. We headlined the story “The Sound of Bursting Bubbles,” and that’s just what it was.

So, last year, MS 53’s report card grade dropped to a C, garnering only 39.6 points out of 100.

Remember now, that the great majority of the same students who earned the A in 2009 were still in the school in 2010. Nothing changed, except for the way the state and city normed the tests.

Now comes 2011.

This year, MS 53 earned 13.2 points out of 100 and an F grade that will most likely cause the city to phase out the school and put some smaller schools in the building.

What happened during the three year period when the school’s report card fell from 96.5 points and an A to 13.2 points and an F?

Did the school all of a sudden get students who were less able to do academic work? Did the teachers in the building suddenly become less competent? Did the administrative staff fail?

None of those things happened. What happened is that the state and the city pushed the scores up to an irrational level by playing with the cut score.

Why?

The state wanted money from the wildly unrealistic “Race to the Top” and the city wanted to prove that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the educational wizard he claimed to be.

Now, everybody knows that claim is a lie.

The problem is, the mayor won’t say that the scores were illusionary and he continues to push to use those illusionary scores to close schools and fire competent, hard-working teachers.

How can anybody justify firing teachers because their students did not perform well on the test when we all know that the test if fatally flawed?

Let’s look at this year’s test.

First of all, the test is not just based on statistics.

Just as military law has a catch-all that allows the system to play games (conduct unbecoming), the Department of Education has built in a category called “Closing the Achievement Gap.”

The category is for “making exceptional gains with students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students with the lowest proficiency citywide.” It is worth 15 points, and it allows the city to further “play” with the final score without having a provable statistic to worry about.

Let’s take a look at the test and this year’s result.

Remember, that progress (60 points) is rated more valuable than actual performance (25 points), which is only slightly more valuable than environment (15 points).

Let’s see what that means in real terms.

The Scholars’Academy is the district’s magnet school for high performing students. Nobody in the school is low performing by definition.

So, it got the highest Performance score, 20.5 points out of 25, but only a mediocre Progress score of 28.9 out of 60. It got 0.0 points for closing the achievement gap because there is no achievement gap in the school.

Of course, one might question how students already performing on the highest level might show progress, but that question does not seem to bother the Department of Education very much, and when you ask it of the DOE’s press office, you get a lot of educational gobbledygook that makes no sense to a layman and less to a person who had been teaching for more than 30 years.

The Knowledge And Power Preparatory Academy (KAPPA VI), housed in the Far Rockaway Educational Campus (how I hate those words), received only 9.4 points out of 25 for performance, because most of its students are well below “grade level,” although that term is no longer used in proper educational circles. It got 41.9 points for Progress and 7.0 points (out of 15) for making exceptional gains.

Scholars Academy got a final score of A with 59.6 points. KAPPA VI got a final score of A with 67.5 points.

Now, to the uninitiated, that should mean that KAPPA VI is a better school than Scholars’ Academy.

After all, one of the reasons for the report cards was for parents to be able to compare school options before making a critical placement decision.

To look at the report cards, however, would lead a parent to believe that several schools on the peninsula are better than others, when the clearly are not.

Why then even bother to put out the report cards?

The DOE uses them as a weapon, to punish some schools and reward others.

That is not something the people who run our public schools should be doing.

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