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City schools to be graded on a curve for next year’s report cards

Many of the city elementary and middle schools who received A’s on last year’s report cards are likely to see their grades drop under a new scoring system for next year, Department of Education officials told principals today.

Next year, only the top-scoring 25 percent of elementary and middle schools will receive A’s, with just under a third of schools each getting B’s and C’s. A tenth of schools will be handed D’s, and 5 percent will receive failing grades, according to the plan outlined today by the city’s accountability chief Shael Polakow-Suransky.

(More than 80 percent of elementary and middle schools took home A’s on their progress reports for last school year.)

The change comes as part of the first step of a gradual recalibration of the way schools are rated in the city’s progress reports system and is also a by-product of the wider state effort to overhaul tests given to New York’s third through eighth graders.

State education officials are redesigning tests this year, both to make them more difficult and to judge a wider set of skills. Students are also taking state test in May this year for the first time, where in the past they’ve sat for exams in January.

Suransky said the curved grading system was to account for the uncertainty of how the variety of changes in the state exams are going to affect schools’ performances. The city wants to let principals know how their schools will be graded at the start of each year, but given the haze that still lies over the coming tests, Suransky said it wouldn’t be fair to schools to guess what bars for success should be set.

“We could well end up in a situation where most of the schools could be D’s and F’s” if the city guessed wrong, Suransky said in an interview. “And that wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of how schools are doing.”

Suransky said that the curved grading system was likely to be temporary until the DOE can accurately gauge what scores the most successful schools should receive. Because state exams for high school students are not changing this year, high schools will continue to be graded as they have in the past.

Some school principals said that despite the effort to account for the x-factor of the new state tests, there is still plenty of uncertainty in the new system.

“My concern is that an A means a school is outstanding, and can we all be outstanding?” asked Janet Heller, principal of M.S. 324, the Patricia Mirabal School. “What does outstanding mean?”

“Will a school that is outstanding not be given an A because the quota of 25% was met?” Heller continued. “Are they saying that any school that has a 90 to 100 grade is outstanding, or are they saying that we will only allow 25% of our schools to be called outstanding?”

Another principal, Stacey Gauthier of Renaissance Charter School, said that the ambiguity leaves principals unsure of how to prepare for their year.

“If [the report card system] keeps changing and the criteria isn’t clear, it’s a little bit unfair to the schools,” she said. “It’s like saying to a kid, I don’t really now what kind of test I’m going to give you, but when things come out I’ll figure it out. That’s not really the best assessment.”

Gauthier said that because city report card grades have concrete repercussions for schools, knowing in advance how a school will be evaluated matters. “Schools are closed based on this information, schools go on remediation, schools lose funding, parents look at this — it is high stakes,” she said.

The change in grade distribution was one of several changes to the report card grading system announced today, some of which are likely to be welcomed by schools and advocates.

For example, the report cards will now grade student progress in a way that controls for students’ scores the year before and compares each students’ progress with other students who started at the same place.

In previous years’ reports, students were grouped by whether or not they scored above or below state tests’ proficiency bar, and each student was compared against others in their group. “That was a blunter version [of comparisons], and this is going to get more granular,” Suransky said.

Another change will alter the way schools are judged for their work with disabled students. The reports will set specific goals students must reach to boost special education students’ academic achievement, and will consider gains made by students differently according to level of need.

“We want to make it really clear that if you do well with these students, you will be rewarded,” Suransky said.

But the element of the report card program that has drawn perhaps the most criticism since its introduction in 2007 — that grades are weighted too heavily on the results of standardized tests — remains unchanged.

The plan released today isn’t yet final. Suransky’s accountability office will be meeting with groups of principals and parents for feedback, and will announce the final changes to the progress report system in March, he said.

Along with the changes to report card grading, Suransky’s accountability office also released a clarification of new state guidelines for granting high-school students course credit. Among the changes will be a new way to monitor how schools are granting credit recovery, which gives students credit for classes they have failed. The DOE has not previously tracked credit recovery programs or the numbers of course credits gained in them. The city will also begin randomly auditing the scoring of Regents exams at 10 percent of the city’s high schools, Sursansky said.

Here’s the letter that Suransky sent to principals today, along with memos detailing the changes to the report cards and credit accumulation: