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80 percent of schools land top grades on DOE’s progress reports

As early reports suggested they would, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein announced today that more than half of all elementary and middle schools received higher progress report grades this year than last year, the first that the reports were issued. In all, 79 percent of schools earned As or Bs, more than 20 percentage points higher than last year. (High school reports will come out later this fall, after data about August graduation and Regents performance is taken into account.)

“We’re just as proud of the F student who became a C student as we are of the A student,” Bloomberg said, contrasting the city’s accountability system against the state’s, which condemns low-performing schools even if they are on the upswing. The DOE’s press release is filled with impressive statistics about schools’ performance on the reports.

The reports released today are meant to highlight student progress, as opposed to raw performance, which the state uses to judge schools. Sixty percent of a school’s grade is based on “progress,” or how much individual students improved or fell behind in the last year. Schools also get “extra credit” if students with special needs — such as disabilities, English language learner status, or poor performance in the past — do particularly well. Raw student performance does make up 25 percent of a school’s grade, and the results of the Learning Environment Surveys that parents and teachers took this spring make up the remaining 15 percent of the score. On each measure, schools are compared both to all city schools and to schools in their “peer group,” made up of schools that have similar demographics.

Bloomberg said the reports, which are available online, make school performance transparent and help administrators and teachers to focus their attention and resources on the students who need it most. Finally, he said, the reports are the only measure where schools are held accountable for improving student performance — and accountability, he emphasized, breeds success, with schools earning higher marks this year even though progress report grades were issued last November for the first time, just two months before state English tests and four months before state math tests. The DOE’s chief accountability officer, Jim Liebman, who spearheaded the progress report initiative, cited a recent paper by Columbia economist Jonah Rockoff that concludes that new accountability systems can produce real effects in a very short time.

Administrators at PS 5, the Bedford-Stuyvesant elementary school where the press conference took place, said their progress report grade last year pushed them to help their students more. PS 5 earned an A this year after two-thirds of students posted more than a year’s worth of progress between state tests in 2007 and 2008. “The F that we received last year — that really motivated us,” said Principal Lena Gates, in her 10th year as principal and celebrating her birthday today. In response, she said, PS 5 began looking at students’ strengths and weaknesses, rather than their overall test scores, when setting goals for improvement. The school also surveyed students about their teachers’ effectiveness and surveyed parents several times during the year to address their needs and get them comfortable responding to questions about the school before the official DOE survey.

Asked about surprising low grades, such as the F that the popular Brooklyn Heights school PS 8 received, officials said stood by their results. “All of the examples we’re aware of, we’ve gone back and checked,” Liebman said. And Klein noted that the decision to close schools, one potential consequence for poor progress report grades, is “not reflexive or automatic.”

At times, Bloomberg’s responses were less tolerant. When Klein responded to a question by saying that DOE analysis found no relationship between class size and schools’ grades, Bloomberg stepped in to say, “It’s so unambiguous. I don’t even know why the subject comes up anymore” — and he also said, falsely, that his administration has reduced class sizes “by one or two kids per class.” Another reporter asked what would happen to schools that failed, and Bloomberg shot back, “It never occurred to me to worry about the staff.” And when a questioner alluded to a perceived lack of parent engagement in the schools, Bloomberg said, “It’s fashionable to say parents want more involvement,” but the parent surveys — part of the largest survey other than the U.S. Census, Klein noted — and the existence of parent coordinators in every school have created “real parent involvement.”

More fun facts about the progress reports from the DOE’s press release: