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Grading Schools


Editor's note: Bridging Differences returns today from its holiday break with this entry from Diane Ravitch.

Dear Deb,

Let's talk about grading schools and about when it is appropriate to close schools. It seems that the accountability idea has become the overrriding passion in American education: Everyone must be held accountable, everyone must have their feet held to the fire on a regular basis, and every decision will be based on test scores. Students better raise their scores or they fail; teachers better raise their students' scores, or they will not get a bonus and might get some sort of sanction; and principals must see to it that their school scores continually go up, or they may be fired (or, if the scores do rise, the principals are in line for fat bonuses).

Hardly a day passes without a story from another school district about the adoption of bonus pay for teachers and/or principals, as well as other incentives or sanctions based solely on scores. Houston just got a big sum from the Gates Foundation for merit pay, and the state of New York just received a big grant from Gates to install a new value-added accountability system. It seems to be happening everywhere.

I find myself (once again) in the uncomfortable position of seeing ideas that I have supported as part of a broader set of reforms turn into unhealthy obsessions. I feel like someone who said that people should wear hats and then turned around to discover that people were talking about nothing else but their hats and walking around naked. Maybe there is a better metaphor to express my frustration about the new fanaticism about testing and accountability as the key element of the corporate culture imported into American education. I'll rely on our readers to suggest a better metaphor. As I recall, looking back on what I have written over many years, I always believed that a strong curriculum, sound instruction, and good working conditions were necessary preconditions to testing and accountability.

Deb, I think that one of the things that has occasionally drawn us together is that we both have a vision about education, what it might be, even when we disagree about this or that detail. Now I find that no one seems to talk about education anymore, just testing and accountability. Is it the market mentality that has taken control? Is it the business/corporate model that is driving all discussion of policy? Why is everyone submitting to these mindless, soul-less accounting schemes?

Take the latest grading system to come from New York City. Since our mayor apparently plans to run for president and intends to cite his education reforms, we should write about what is actually happening here. Our chancellor hired a law school professor to design the city's grading plan. The grading system gives each school a single letter, from A to F. This is no report card, which would measure inputs and outputs on a variety of particulars. Nope, just a single letter grade. Imagine if your child came home from school with a letter grade instead of a report card that pointed to her or his strengths and weaknesses; I certainly would find it objectionable.

The grading system has produced some very strange results. More than half of the 400 schools that are on the state or federal list of weak schools received an A or B from the city's Department of Education. A school that is on the state's very small list of "persistently dangerous" schools was awarded an A. At the same time, 99 schools that are in good standing with the state or federal government received a D or an F. Some schools that are recognized as outstanding schools in their community received a D or an F.

How did these strange results come about? The city Department of Education decided to base the scores overwhelmingly on changes in state test scores over one year, and to place most emphasis on "progress." Thus a school where 90 percent of the students met state standards in the first year, but only 87 percent in the next year might get a D or an F. And a school where 20 percent of the students met the standards in the first year, but saw an increase of a few percentage points in the next year might get an A or B.

Thus some really outstanding schools have been stigmatized as failures, while some very low-performing schools boast an A or B. This makes no sense to anyone, but the city has taken its new and unproven scoring system and decided to close 14 schools that received a D or F. Now, maybe these are truly awful schools, but some of them have gotten passing marks from both the state and feds. Some apparently are beloved community institutions. We will see what replaces them. My guess is charter schools and small schools. Will they be better? Who knows?

There remain many questions. Not only whether the scoring system is a valid measure of anything, but whether the tests on which they are based are sound enough to sustain these weighty decisions that determine the future of a school community. Somehow it strikes me that schools should be given extra support to help them get better, that closing them should be a last resort, not a first step.

What do you think?



I've proposed two metaphors. One is in the title of my book Accountability Frankenstein, and you have to read (or listen to) the preface to understand why I'm referring to the original Shelley rather than the Boris Karloff. The other metaphor I've written about specifically with regard to NYC's grades is the notion of bundling, which Joel Klein opposed when he was suiting Microsoft, but which he is now using shamelessly.

As the car ads used to say, your mileage may vary, but since you asked about metaphors, I thought I'd proffer them. Though I like the one about hats!

1. We have to reframe the debate.

Let's swap accountability with transparency and responsibility.

Let's change performance to development and growth.

And, Diane this may make you a tad uncomy, let's work on integration, customization, and diversity instead of standards.

2. We must get communities involved with their schools. Overtime, spreadsheets have replaced actually going into the schools. Why visit when you can open the paper and "know" how your schools are doing?

My response to that question, rough b/c i have to teach in 10...

Would you go to a football or baseball game and just stare at the scoreboard? Would that tell you how well each member of the team played/improved?

Thanks so much to both of you for continuing this conversation!

So much of what you just eloquently presented is exactly how I feel. As a former teacher and someone dedicated to reforming our educational system, I have been seething over this report card system since it first came out.

I just wanted to add one more thing to the picture you created above. While schools are being closed for a D and F, the schools that earned As and got positive quality reviews are being awarded $30 per pupil to be used any way they choose as long as they share their tricks of the trade with other schools. If this money was actually being directed to essential programs I might not label this decision financialy irresponsible, might being the key word. But in total over a million dollars is being spent on schools that are producing the desired results,...this is money that could be used to create new programs in schools that are not working. It just all seems so contradictory...


I couldn’t agree more with you. The system that NYC has put into place to “grade” schools is abhorrent. Not only will it not improve student performance but it is degrading and de-motivating for the teachers who work hard at teaching our children. Simply telling schools that they are “lazy” and “ineffective” gives no insight/path forward on how to improve student learning.

But is it really “testing and accountability” that is at fault or is it the grossly mistaken notion that we have “good” teachers/schools or “bad” teachers/schools?

Quality teaching is learned. Has NYC set up any type of system that allows teachers to improve their practice or developed curricula that make sense, actually improves student learning and is easy to implement. I fear not. It seems as if they are doing the opposite: giving teachers poor curricula, non-existent support in improving teaching and “blaming” them for not performing miracles.

Quality testing can bring enormous transparency to the educational table by illuminating where we currently are and where we need to improve. But using that data as a hammer against teachers or blaming schools for not improving themselves that NYC (and NCLB) has done is damaging to our schools and does nothing to improve student learning.

You asked whether these practices are widespread in business. And the answer is “yes”; for those businesses that fail. Quality organizations (both private and public) know that the leadership is always ultimately responsible. Passing the blame onto subordinates only serves to distract and delay the failure process. It is the job of the leaders to enable the organization to succeed.

What is lacking from our national discussion is the role that curricula and teaching play in student learning. Students learn from a specific teacher using a specific curriculum in a specific classroom. Without classroom level improvements, our children’s learning will not improve; thus inviting more of these ill-thought out “education reforms” that will serve only to degrade our system more.

Erin Johnson.


I always appreciate your wisdom. How did we get to the point where holding peoples' feet to the fire is the dominant passion in education?

I'm saddened by our current fiasco in Oklahoma City. Seven months ago, we hired a dynamic superintendent from the Broad School. Last night he was suspended in a bitter racial battle. For all his virtues, the superintendent immediately alienated virtually every administrator in the system with his relentless push for accountability.

Both sides of the conflict have people who are extremely effective and both sides have plenty of incompetent people defending their turf.

It is easy for committed reformers to get impatient for change. But we have to take the time to talk with each other. And we need to resist the temptation to continually judge each other.

I agree with Erin and John.

I like the idea of the NCLB legislation (the education of every child counts) with the exception of its emphasis on the stick as opposed to offering some carrots.

The reauthorization debate has all but concluded growth models will be employed to track the progress of individual students as opposed to tracking at-risk cohort groups. That's a very good first step.

The specifics of federal carrots could best be worked out in the reauthorization.

Education debate at its worst (not here) is somewhat reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. The ones with hats and no clothes (to stretch your metaphor) point to the others and say, "Put on your hats!" To which they respond, "Put on your clothes!"

The tiny voice in the corner suggesting that both hats and clothes are important--is that voice ignored? No! The naked people accuse that person of siding with the hatless ones, and the hatless ones likewise accuse her or him of siding with the naked ones.

That is one of many reasons why it is so gratifying to read Bridging Differences. It makes me believe we could still build a great educational system if we looked past the current hysteria to what is important. Granted, we may not reach consensus about what is important. Nonetheless, the very act of looking past the momentary mania could help us distinguish a vision from a fad. As Leonard Cohen sings, "A scheme is not a vision."

I am eagerly reading Bridging The Differences as well as the blogs and thank you both for feeding and fueling
our concerns and thoughts about education. Though I have serious doubts about a national curriculum, we must all be aware of the issues and problems in curriculum design and get back to what really matters in a changing world.(Debbie Meiers wrote a wonderful piece in this debate about What Matters Most) We are after all, teaching as Dewey wrote for a democracy, which is quite different from testing outcomes that have truly limited and demoralized teachers. The business model does not seem to fit education and what we read about the current practices in NY as well as in other urban cities is a "quick fix". NCLB needs to be fully revised before it does more damage to poor children and to teachers who care about them.

I read an article in this week's Education Week by Professor David Seeley
in which he made the following 6 points for those presidential candidates who are striving to be our next president.In view of last night's NH elections which are still so fresh in my mind, I am quoting his points here for you to peruse.

"Take “all children can learn” seriously. This doesn’t mean lock-step uniformity. It implies a fundamental shift from the “winners and losers” model embedded in the present system, to a system designed to assure each child’s educational success. This shift will drive all other reform.

• Move from “school systems” to “education systems.” Schools alone can’t achieve this radically higher level of educational success. They need the active support of families and community resources, and a whole new partnership framework to promote their collaboration.

• De-emphasize bureaucracy and promote teamwork and “learning communities.” Bureaucratic culture has been stifling quality public education since long before the enactment of the No Child Left Behind law. It is a major reason standards, assessment, and accountability were weak before the federal law, and it is why NCLB is creating such negative responses in many school districts.

• Let accountability begin by making teachers, students, and parents personally accountable to one another. Without powerful shared purpose and mutual responsibility at this level, all other “accountability” from above will fail.

• Help people understand that system change is difficult. It will require the support and participation of many people, and is not something that school officials can accomplish through rhetoric or mandates. Political leaders need to help mobilize the support, involvement, and cooperation that will be required.

• Invest in the change process. Corporations have learned that system change requires much more orientation and training than they had initially expected, and school systems have a more complex array of participants than corporations do. Political leadership is needed to secure the funding that can help school people learn their new roles and relationships.

With these fundamentals in mind, let us ask political candidates this year to give us more than boilerplate responses to questions about education. Let’s demand that they think deeply, critically, and creatively about the issue that affects so much of our future."

David S. Seeley, a professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, was an assistant U.S. commissioner of education during the Johnson administration. A former executive director of the Public Education Association, he is the author of Education Through Partnership.

One issue not addressed in the posting is the accountability of the tests themselves. I found one question on the standardized test a couple of years ago so poorly written that it had three correct answers. In another question two answers were so close either of them could have worked if students had been able to argue for their choice.

I have participated, along with others in my district, in creating benchmark tests that replicate the year end state standards test. Writing the questions and then reviewing students' responses has been a real education for me. I am so much more aware of how question wording, context, and format can lead students astray. Some of my strongest students overthink their answers when given any loophole for the imagination to slip through. The standardized tests are useful as a glimpse into how students think, but often have little meaning in determining a student's understanding or knowledge, especially when it comes to higher order thinking skills. Only when a teacher can closely analyze how the students responded to individual questions do they offer any insight into student thought processes. Unfortunately, all of that is top secret.

As far as the NYC grading system goes, students at my urban middle school consistently perform in the 87th percentile. As there is little room for growth at the level, we would surely be closed within a year. Why in our field do we so often follow the path of, "If it works, fix it so it doesn't?"

I have been NYC public elementary school teacher for the past 20 years. Never in my professional life have I seen such harmful practices in public education.

I am also a graduate of the public school system and vividly remember the tracking system that kept children segregated by race and class using similar measures.
At least when I attended school, there was more than one test given each year in a variety of subjects so you had a better chance to improve and succeed.

I just spent the better part of two-days administering the statewide English Language Arts exam (intended to measure how well children are reading and writing. It is one of two that is used to determine students' supposed success and, eventually, their school's fate. It is a terrible instrument that in no way helps a teacher gain insight or information about how a child can write, read, or comprehend what is read, which is the essential reason for reading in the first place. The story used is simplistic, the questions that follow, convoluted and inadequate.

It is a travesty to say this exam is used to determine a student's success and instructional needs or a school's effectiveness.

It seems that we are returning to antiquated methods of the past rather than moving forward to prepare students to become future citizens in an ever challenging world.

This approach leaves every child in public education in America behind and threatens to erode the very creative and innovative spirit that could, in fact, improve our public educational system.

Dear Louisa Cruz-Acosta,

I was teary-eyed when I read your well written entry about your dedicated teaching in NY city schools and the ridiculous tests you have to give. I think that NCLB leaves creative and caring teachers like you behind as well as the children.

You are not alone. Here in Boston and all over the US are teachers who feel the same way and who after the testing is over, look at each day ahead, look at each child, and close their doors and TEACH.

This is not a solution but I cheer you on, renewing your hope, and wishing that
somehow if we all work together we can make a dfference and pull our schools toward releasing the imagination of each child, not extinguishing it.

You write so well, I look forward to reading more vignettes from your classroom.

I, too, loved Louisa Cruz-Acosta's comment, and heartily agree. I am tired of seeing so many convoluted questions, like "Which of the following statements BEST summarizes the narrator's initial reaction to Uncle Frank?"

It seems those who conceive the tests are trying to do too much at once. They want to test "critical thinking" as well as knowledge. Testing critical thinking via multiple choice questions is perilous. Multiple choice questions should have one correct answer, not a "best" answer. Leave the critical thinking for the essay.

That, and the writers and proofreaders need to know their subject. How many times have you seen a question about a line of poetry, asking whether it is an example of personification or metaphor, when this instance of personification is in fact a metaphor as well? (It can be, even if some teacher manuals state otherwise.) Or it asks whether a certain part of the poem is an example of rhyme or alliteration, and the cited lines happen to have both.

Also, the test writers seem obsessed with graphic organizers (on the written portion of the test). Certainly it is important to plan one's writing, and certain kinds of organizers facilitate this task. Unfortunately, it seems the test writers and test prep writers are pushing graphic organizers for their own sake, for what reasons I don't know. Kids would be much better off writing coherent thesis statements and outlines.

My initial dream proposals would be:

1. Do away with multiple-choice questions. Or, if that is impossible, then do away with the questions containing the words "best," "most likely," and so forth. Each question should have only one possible answer out of the options. Make them hard, sure! But make them clear.

2. The writing portion can have critical thinking. Do away with graphic organizers unless they are entirely appropriate. Encourage students to write thesis statements and outlines before they begin the essay.

3. Make sure the tests are thoroughly reviewed by teachers, writers, and scholars in the field. Provide a convenient forum for suggestions, and take them seriously. I know there are some task forces out there that teachers can join--but that can be an enormous commitment for a teacher who doesn't want to spend all her time on tests. Perhaps there could be a website for discussion of test format and questions.

If such a forum already exists, I would like to know about it. For security reasons, we are forbidden to talk about the actual tests; but we should be able to discuss practice tests, especially those that are publicly available via the internet. It seems that if we shook some of the nonsense out of the tests, they wouldn't have to dominate our schools or interfere so much with teaching and learning.

Several questions for Louisa from NYC:

* What does tracking have to do with NCLB tests?

* What alternative, quantitative, objective measure(s) would you recommend to determine students' learning?

* Specifically, which antiquated methods of the past are you referring to that resemble NCLB assessments?

* What measures would you employ to determine whether students are being left behind?

Read your entry with great interest but...

Some metaphors:

All eggs in one basket

Buying the lottery ticket in hopes of saving your family from foreclosure

I'm with Paul, Erin, and John. Why is it that the US always uses a stick instead of a carrot? Don't people know that reinforcement has longer and stronger effects than punishment?

I love John's idea of rewording: accountability with transparency and responsibility

and performance to development and growth

Changing NCLB to track individual students from year to year is a much better idea. That way the parents and teachers get a better view of progress.

Oregon tried to do this but didn't get permission from DOE. Too bad. There are a lot of schools going through boundary changes and some schools have chronic student turn over so the individual tracking would have been helpful.

And a note about bad tests: one year Oregon had to throw out test results for 10th grade math. It seems they didn't have the money to review and validate the test.

Wow, if only 50 different states didn't have to reinvent the testing wheel on the basics! But I'm fairly certain that my state would choose to continue developing their expensive tests over hiring more teachers and using standardized tests or purchasing another state's tests.

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