Going Grade-less

Under gentler rating system, schools will no longer be ranked or graded

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Chancellor Fariña speaking at P.S. 503, whose principal Bernadette Fitzgerald will lead one of the Brooklyn field support centers.

The city has revamped the way it rates schools, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday, transforming school report cards into something more like online reviews.

Schools will no longer receive annual progress reports that rank them and give them A-to-F letter grades, which Fariña and many educators have condemned as blunt and unreliable. Instead, beginning this fall, the city will produce separate guides for educators and families about every school that highlight the results of surveys and classroom observations alongside students’ test scores and course grades.

The new evaluations reflect the school system’s sharp swerve under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña away from a philosophy of competition and consequences as the drivers of change, to one where school improvement is seen as the fruit of cooperation and support. In fact, Fariña did not say Wednesday whether low-performing schools would face any repercussions or interventions — a point that critics seized on — only saying that they would be given customized support.

“This is a totally new approach,” Fariña said during a speech at P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

Since 2006, the city has issued schools annual progress reports with overall A-to-F grades and percentile rankings. While the education department has added a greater variety of data to the reports over time, students’ state test scores have until now largely determined the grades that elementary and middle schools receive. (High schools’ grades factor in graduation rates, how quickly students earn credits, and how well students are prepared for college.)

Because low-rated schools could face sanctions and declining enrollment, critics said the grades spurred some principals to manipulate data and teachers to center their classes around test preparation. Meanwhile, because schools were compared to their peers, sometimes schools with scores above the city average still earned low grades on the reports.

“I don’t think that they were an accurate or fair representation in a lot of instances,” said Dionne Grayman, co-founder of the public-school parent advocacy group, NYCpublic.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration "misled hundreds of thousands of parents."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration “misled hundreds of thousands of parents.”

More description than assessment, the new guides are meant to give parents a fuller picture of schools and help educators take stock of what’s working and what needs to be fixed without feeling judged, officials said. They repackage many of the same metrics that the previous administration used to measure schools, but they avoid giving them final ratings — which under the Bloomberg administration could lead to sanctions and even closure if schools earned low grades.

Now, the city will create a shorter “quality snapshot” for families and a “quality guide” for staffers or those who want more data. Neither features an overall school rating.

The snapshots include student test scores, graduation rates, and some survey data, as the progress reports did, but add ratings of the quality of teaching and curriculum in schools that are based on formal school observations.

The 16-to-18-page guides describe schools’ student populations, give excerpts from the formal review findings, and provide detailed data about how well students performed on tests and schoolwork, similar to the progress reports. But instead of giving schools letter grades based on student performance, the guides say whether schools are “not meeting,” “approaching,” “meeting,” or “exceeding” a target score that the city will calculate for each school.

Sean Corcoran, an education economics professor at New York University who consulted department officials this year as they redesigned the evaluations, said the new guides feature much of the same information as the older progress reports. But by removing the overall ratings, the new guides will force readers to look more closely at data they may have glanced over before, he added.

“These reports do a good job of making families and schools look a little deeper than just a letter grade,” he said.

But the lack of letter grades also could present a new burden for families sorting through dozens of school guides during the admissions process. School officials acknowledged that on Wednesday, saying the department would have to train parents to read the new guides.

The evaluations put new emphasis on the results of the annual surveys that students, parents, and educators take, as well as the findings of the formal school observations. Fariña said she would improve those tools by making sure they measure certain characteristics of good schools, such as strong leadership and close ties with families. Officials also said they would conduct more school observations this year, though more than a quarter of schools will not be visited.

While the surveys and observations might catch qualities of a school that test scores miss, they are also susceptible to tampering, some educators said. Geraldine Maione, the former principal of William Grady Career & Technical High School, said she knew of schools that gave students and parents food while they took the survey as a way to boost the results. Because the school review visits are announced ahead of time, they often amount to “dog and pony shows,” she added.

A former department official who helped design the original progress reports said that some metrics on the new quality snapshots, such as “How interesting and challenging is the curriculum?” are “impossible to measure consistently.”

“There’s no additional sunlight there,” the official said, “just the replacement of a scale that seems too harsh to some with language that seems mushier to others.”

Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including "When You Wish Upon A Star."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

Fariña also said very little about how the department will use the new evaluations, particularly when they show that schools are struggling.

In the past, schools that earned consecutive low grades were given improvement plans and could eventually face closure. The new administration has made clear that closure will now be used only as a last resort, but Fariña did not describe on Wednesday what sort of interventions the city will take for schools found to be low performing. Officials said in a briefing after her speech that they are still discussing how to use the new evaluations to design supports for schools, but they “anticipate talking more about that in January.”

Groups that supported the previous administration and have been critical of Fariña called her speech a disappointment and said it failed to address head-on the city’s many struggling schools. Even people who praised the new evaluations said it was troubling that the city did not say how it will use the ratings to prop up low-performing schools.

Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said the evaluation shift represents an improvement from the previous administration’s “top-down approach to reform.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “it does not outline a real plan for what [this administration] intends to do with failing schools.”

Sarah Darville and Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”