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A tale of two Bronx schools: similar scores but different ratings

Two elementary schools in the South Bronx, P.S. 161 and P.S. 277, are half a mile apart. They are both mid-sized, high-poverty elementary schools serving mostly Hispanic students. Last school year, both schools had similar percentages of their students passing state exams in math, reading, and science.

But under the city’s progress report card grading system, P.S. 161 was ranked in the top fifth of schools, and P.S. 277 was ranked in the bottom fifth.

Why? The reasons are highlighted in a new report whose authors examined each school in-depth.

Visiting P.S. 277, the report’s co-author Clara Hemphill found engaged students and energetic teachers. But its well-rounded curriculum — which teaches skills that are part of state standards but not tested on standardized exams — isn’t weighted heavily in the city’s report card accounting. The school also has a high poverty rate and lots of homeless kids, but the progress report system doesn’t count those students when determining whether the school serves a challenging population.

The principal also told Hemphill that she tries to minimize the number of students classified as special ed, preferring instead to work with struggling students first in general education classes. But that approach penalizes her on the progress reports, which show that she works with a less challenging population than she might otherwise.

By contrast, when Hemphill visited P.S. 161, she found kids with their heads on desks, filling out worksheets. The recently-retired principal told Hemphill that the students spend a lot of time doing test prep. The school does have high rates of students learning English and has the highest percentage of special education students in its district, which gave the school a big boost on its report card grade.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s deputy chancellor overseeing its accountability efforts, acknowledged that the state standardized tests are imperfect. But he defended their use as a way to judge schools, given a correlation between a student’s test scores and their eventual likelihood of graduating. The report cards are a work in progress as the city fine-tunes its process, Polakow-Suransky said. “It’s that factor — getting more precise about measuring growth — that will address some of these concerns,” he said.

He pointed out that the city is revamping the progress report grading this year, setting specific goals for special education student progress and comparing students’ progress to other students who began the year at the same proficiency level. “We’re trying to control for where kids start,” he said.

UPDATE: Department of Education officials defended the two schools’ grades, arguing that P.S. 161 has made significantly more progress boosting the test scores of its lowest-achieving students, particularly in math.  The average change in proficiency level for P.S. 161 students scoring 1s or 2s on state math exams was nearly twice that among P.S. 277 students, according to data provided by DOE spokesman Danny Kanner.

“To be very clear, both of these schools have made admirable progress with their students, but the data simply don’t support the report’s argument in this case,” Kanner said.