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Progress reports due out today; get ready to read them carefully

In just about an hour, the DOE is holding a press conference at PS 5 in Brooklyn to release the 2007-2008 school progress reports, which assign a letter grade to schools based on student performance and progress.

Last year, when the reports were issued for the first time, schools and parents were shocked by some of the grades: some well-respected schools received low grades and some schools that families shun got high ones. Even though principals are reporting generally positive results, there will likely be shockers again this year, as Brooklyn’s PS 8’s leaked F grade foreshadowed last week.

Last year, parent leader David Bloomfield called the progress reports “a noble experiment gone bad.” At the Panel for Educational Policy meeting last night, Chancellor Klein responded to a question about the progress reports by calling them the “most powerful” accountability tool that exists for schools. As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between — the reports can be useful, but only if parents, schools, and policymakers look at them carefully and sensibly.

The reports do have a lot to say a lot about how much ground individual students gained in the last year as measured by their performance on state tests, information that isn’t readily available anywhere else. They say a little about a school’s performance in general on those tests. And it says just a tiny bit about how parents, teachers, and sometimes students feel about their school. At the PEP meeting yesterday, Klein indicated that this year, schools will receive subgrades for each of these general categories. But it’s the composite grade that’s sure to attract the most attention.

Knowing about the effect of a school’s program on kids who have the most ground to make up — or the least — is valuable for parents. But it’s just one piece of the information available to them. Parents can also consult state report cards, used for federal accountability measures; the parent, teacher, and student surveys; the Quality Reviews, which look at how organized and efficient schools are; schools’ budgets and funding plans; and specialized reports about the arts, class size, and special education services. Looking beyond the data the DOE provides, parents can consult the school reviews at the independent website Insideschools.org (where I used to work) or seek advice from neighbors on the street and on online newsgroups.

Just as soon as I get my hands on a new progress report, I’ll write more about how to evaluate them.

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