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School support organizations will be graded, too — and publicly

The organizations that schools can choose to affiliate with for bureaucratic support, like New Visions for Public Schools, the Knowledge Network, and the Empowerment network, are being graded this month for their effectiveness. The Department of Education’s accountability office is writing the grades of the “school support organizations,” and Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern said the outcome will eventually be made public.

“It will definitely be public before schools have to make the selection as to which SSO they want to affiliate with next year, so that parents and teachers and principals can make that decision on the basis of all sorts of factors,” Nadelstern said yesterday.

The school support organizations were created last year as part of an overhaul of the school system’s bureaucracy. Rather than being forced to report to the superintendent in their neighborhood, schools can shop around among a set of support organizations to decide which bureaucracy they prefer.

This is the first year that the support organizations will be graded, since they’ve now amassed a year’s worth of a track record in student test scores. Nadelstern said that the accountability office, headed up by Columbia law professor Jim Liebman, is basing its grades on both schools’ progress report cards and on their quality reviews, written reports about schools based on in-person interviews and observations.

The report cards have come under heavy criticism for being statistically problematic, if not meaningless. Researchers say a major reason to be cautious about trusting the report cards is that they draw on just one year of student test scores, which carry large margins of error. That’s not to mention the fact that the tests themselves are not robust enough to use for these kinds of comparisons, or that the things officials are comparing — proficiency scores — don’t make statistical sense to compare, or the problem of so much measurement “noise” that the report card grades from one year to the next are almost as good as random.

Nadelstern, who recently took over the responsibility of overseeing all support organizations, said that he does not plan to shut down any organizations based on their evaluations. “Once we publish what the results are, if there are schools that wish to affiliate, we don’t want to be in a position where we’re telling princpals you can’t,” Nadelstern said. “We just want them to make an informed decision.”