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Critics call NY state’s plans to rate schools based on racial, ethnic group performance ‘dangerous’ and ‘confusing’

New York state’s proposed rating system for reporting on how well schools serve specific “subgroups” sends the wrong message, some advocates say, by creating uneven standards for students of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

Under the State Education Department’s draft plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, schools would receive a rating of 1 through 4 for the academic achievement of each racial or ethnic subgroup of students, as compared to other students in the same subgroups statewide. While regulations under the No Child Left Behind law tracked achievement data by subgroup as well, this is the first time the data will be converted into a rating and presented on every school’s report card.

The subgroups would remain the same as under NCLB: Asian or Pacific Islander, black, Hispanic, Native American, multiracial or white. Students could also be classified as English language learners, low-income, and/or having disabilities. In addition to subgroup scores, the schools would also receive an overall score for the performance of their students compared to all students across the state.

State Education Department officials said the new subgroup ratings, based largely on test scores, are meant to encourage accountability. With each subgroup assigned a performance level, it will be clear how each subgroup in a particular school is performing relative to state goals. It will also allow the state to use measures of “interim progress” individualized for each subgroup, the officials said.

But critics say this system has major drawbacks. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY, noted the methodology could create “uneven expectations for student performance,” as the same student test scores that could result in a 2 for the all-students group could generate a 4 for black or low-income students. The ratings, he said, would have no consistent or fair value, and would signal to parents and schools that there are different standards for different groups of students.

“It is extremely dangerous,” Rosenblum said. “If the main information parents have is a dashboard with all these ratings, if they see a 4, they should be confident 4 means a high level of performance. But it doesn’t. It just means better performance than schools with the same subgroups of students.”

Rosenblum acknowledged that the state has reasonable goals: revealing how well schools serve particular subgroups, such as English learners or students with disabilities. But he said the new rating system would “create more problems than it solves.”

Diana Noriega, chief program officer at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, expressed concern with how the ratings would be communicated to parents. Noriega works closely with parents who do not speak English as their first language — and who often have difficulty understanding the reports and information coming from their children’s school and the city’s education department.

“Think of a parent who is not a native speaker who is also accustomed to getting a level grade for their student, and so they assume the 4 is overall performance,” Noriega said. “Now, you are going to present what seems to be the same data but is not actually the same data. That is confusing.”

Though she does not question the state’s motivation, she said she and her organization will continue to push for the information to be well-described in reports and made easy to understand for parents. The state should track how each subgroup is performing, Noriega said, as it did under No Child Left Behind, but the score presented to parents should be the overall summative school score and not just a score in the context of that subgroup.

Department officials said the state does not yet know what the school dashboards will look like, but that the department is currently working on developing the design.

They acknowledged the negative feedback from advocates. “Some groups have expressed concern that because the long-term goals for subgroups are different, performance at the different levels are not comparable for the different subgroups,” education department officials said. “However, we believe that once persons understand that Level 4 means that this is a high performance for this subgroup of students, we believe this should not be an issue.”

A revised draft of the plan will be provided to the state’s Board of Regents at its July meeting, and the final plan will be acted on by the Regents at their September meeting, according to department officials.