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High-stakes school accountability across the pond

At home and abroad, the ultimate consequence a failing school can face is closure. Under No Child Left Behind, schools can be restructured or even closed if they fail to make progress for several years at a time. Here in New York, the chancellor has the ability to close schools at will, and this past year he shut the doors of several schools where student performance hadn’t budged in years. In addition, last year the DOE released school progress reports for the first time; schools that receive a failing grade on those reports in the future will be subject to closure.

But the handful of school closures each year in the city is nothing compared with what Britain may face in three years. Last month, the British government’s year-old Department for Children, Schools, and Families launched “National Challenge,” an initiative to hold schools accountable for preparing at least 30 percent of their students to pass five comprehensive exams that are considered a first step toward winning university admission. The General Comprehensive Subject Exams, required before students can take the A-level tests required for admission to universities, are offered in dozens of subjects. Currently, only about half of all British teens pass five GCSEs, and a fifth of schools don’t meet the National Challenge requirements. The remaining 20 percent have only until 2011 to improve their performance.

In the initiative’s first phase, the government released a list of schools currently not in compliance with the National Challenge standards. The schools on the list contrast sharply with those considered unsatisfactory by Ofsted, the national unit that inspects schools. In fact, the BBC recently reported that only 10 percent of the schools given only three years to improve or be closed are considered “in need of intervention” by Ofsted. School heads resent the stigma being attached to their schools, with one telling the BBC, “Branding my school as weak is simplistic in the extreme and downright unfair.” The whole affair closely parallels the fallout of the progress reports’ release here in New York last fall, when it became clear that many schools with top grades were on the state’s list of schools in need of improvement, and some failing schools were actually quite high-performing. In England, pundits are asking, “Can naming and shaming help schools?” It’s a question worth considering. (Mike Baker, the British education journalist who posed that question recently, said the answer is no — and that those who named and shamed schools in the past now regret it.)

Another question Britons are grappling with: whether the GCSEs are even valuable. GCSEs have traditionally been considered rigorous exams. But some believe the most popular exams have gotten easier in recent years. A new English course that focuses on “real-life contexts” where English is used rather than on literature will roll out in 2010. A media studies course requires students to analyze scenes from an action film. And in recent years, many independent schools have reduced the number of GCSE exams they offer, saying some subjects are “too easy” to merit class time. The British government seems to be out of step with A report being released this week by two influential British academics concludes that the multiple-test system encourages students to think of learning as a fragmented, disconnected experience. It suggests replacing the GCSE system with a single baccalaureate exam that all students must pass to graduate from secondary school. Here, Britain might learn from the example of the U.S. states that have adopted high school exit exams, only to find that they discourage high school completion.

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