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At PS 8, families cry foul on year's first progress report grade

With their schools’ 2007-2008 progress report grades due out next week, principals are likely to spend their weekend planning either a victory celebration or damage control.

PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights
PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights

At PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights, families are trying to figure out what to think about their school’s failing grade, especially because it earned a C last year and accolades this summer from Chancellor Klein, who held a conference at the school to announce that the school would expand to meet community demand, the Times reports today. Since the arrival of the current principal, Seth Phillips, in 2003, families in the zone have increasingly decided to stay put and enroll at PS 8 once their children reach school age. But according to the DOE’s progress report formula, upper-grade students’ test scores did not improve as much last year as they might have (and did at other schools), even though a majority of them scored at grade level or higher on state math and reading tests.

Asked about the chancellor’s July comments, DOE spokesman David Cantor told the Times, “Now that he has additional information about the school, his view has changed. The most important things about a school are student progress and performance, and in those areas this school isn’t measuring up.” Cantor also said parents and teachers noted “significant concerns” when responding to last year’s Learning Environment Survey — but those concerns aren’t apparent in the composite survey results, which put PS 8 in the top half of schools citywide in three of the four main categories and well above average on the fourth, “engagement.”

The grades — based in large part on “student progress,” or the change in individual students’ test scores from one year to the next — generated great controversy last year when some failing schools received high grades and some schools that are considered desirable earned low ones. This past February, principals were informed of possible changes to the way the grades would be calculated, including credit for schools whose students scored at the highest level in consecutive years and whose students in special education took regular assessments, regardless of their scores. But other than a slight increase in the proportion of the grade generated by student progress, it’s not clear from the Times article whether any of the changes were actually made.

When the full complement of progress report grades are released next week, some will reflect real change or stagnation, but others will reflect merely the idiosyncrasies of the progress report formula. With a better understanding of how the grades are devised, schools might have tweaked the focus of their interventions to maximize gains in the particular areas measured by the progress reports. On the flip side, it would take only a slight variation in individual students’ scores to bring a school’s grade down, and because the formula looks at just two sets of two tests separated by a year, random variation is inevitable. Other school communities will surely find themselves in the same kind of shock next week that PS 8 families must have felt this morning when they opened their newspapers. They can take solace in the fact that only some of the schools that received failing grades last year received new principals, and that schools with higher progress report grades are newly slated to close; the DOE clearly considers more than a school’s letter grade when deciding when to offer rewards or apply consequences.

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