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How to Grade Schools Fairly

When parents buy a house or rent an apartment, one of the most important considerations is the quality of the neighborhood schools.  In fact, realtors rely heavily on this factor in closing a deal. With this in mind,  it's instructive to look at how schools in California and New York are evaluated.

Until recently, California evaluated schools based on the Academic Performance Index, which distilled standardized test scores to a single number ("How California does, and should, grade its schools," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 6).  But realizing that this policy overemphasized math and English, Gov. Jerry Brown two years ago signed legislation that required including graduation rates and preparation for college or career.  With the introduction of the Common Core standards, California has wisely placed a moratorium on the API in order to give schools a chance to familiarize themselves with the new standards.

New York City is also de-emphasizing test scores and eliminating the A-F grade for each school that had been used ("New School Evaluations Will Lower Test Scores' Influence," The New York Times, Oct. 1).  Instead, schools will be evaluated more holistically.  A School Quality Snapshot will be designed for parents and a School Quality Guide will be directed toward school leaders. Unlike California, however, New York City will rate schools from excellent to poor based on improvement in the state's English and math tests.  There will be no moratorium.

But outside of New York City, it's a different story.  New York State continues to rank schools using the Annual Professional Performance Review, which was passed in 2010 and amended in 2012. Teachers are rated "highly effective," "effective," "developing" or "ineffective" based on their score on a 100-point scale ("Want to be rated 'highly effective' in New York? Don't teach English or math in grades 4-8," The Hechinger Report, Oct. 2).  

Under New York State law, English and math teachers in grades 4-8 receive 20 points of their overall evaluation based on their "Mean Growth Percentile," which is essentially a value-added measure.  I don't understand why teachers of English and math are singled out, particularly when the value-added metric has been shown to be flawed. Nevertheless, it is being used.

Despite the similarities and differences in California and New York, there will always be a debate over whether schools are being fairly evaluated.  It's reminiscent of the annual rankings of colleges by U.S. News & World Report.  No matter how clearly the criteria are spelled out, readers will disagree with the findings.  Perhaps that's because when it comes to education at any level, emotions unavoidably come into play.  Some schools with a relatively low ranking can serve their students well in their opinion.  The converse is also true.

I'd advise parents to consider more than a single number in determining if a school is a good fit for their children.  There are other factors that are far more important.  Speaking to other parents whose children are already enrolled is a start.  Then I'd suggest making an appointment with a guidance counselor to discuss the matter.  Just being on school grounds can often prove helpful in making a decision.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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