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The Dumbing Down of 'Accountability'


Dear Deborah,

I heard from a friend who attended the New York state Senate hearing where you testified. He said you were outstanding.

Just last week, the New York City Department of Education released its “report cards” for the schools. Every school was assigned a single letter grade from A to F; this was the second year that grades have been released. Fully 80 percent of the city’s schools got an A or a B, and 18 got an F (last year, 50 schools were graded F). Mayor Michael Bloomberg, not surprisingly, said that the large number of A’s and B’s and the small number of F’s showed the great strides that had been made on his watch.

Last year, the grades were controversial because a number of high-performing schools received a D or an F, having not been able to show much “progress” as compared with low-performing schools that were able to move their students up a few points.

The New York Timesreport on the grades quickly picked up their inconsistency with NCLB grades. Thirty percent of the schools that got an A were ranked failing schools by the state for NCLB purposes; 89 percent of the schools that got an F were in good standing as judged by NCLB. Professor Walt Haney of Boston College said that the fluctuations in grades from year to year, especially for small schools, do not accurately portray what is happening in the schools.

Closer analyses of the grades by Eduwonkette, by Aaron Pallas of Teachers College, and by Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools show that the grades are essentially meaningless, since they probably reflect statistical error rather than real changes in instructional practice. Among other things, the tests are not vertically scaled; they were not designed for value-added purposes to measure growth from year to year.

Just like last year, there were excellent schools that were given a low grade. This year’s most notorious example was P.S. 8, the school in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. This school has seen a tremendous revival in recent years. The mayor and Chancellor Joel Klein held a press event at the school last July to announce their plans to build an annex; they said the school was a model for the city, one of the most successful in the city. Now, two months later, the DOE gave P.S. 8 an F.

Here’s my two cents: The grading system is absurd on its face. It lacks face validity. The first set of grades was released in November 2007. Students took the state tests in January 2008. There were exactly 34 school days between the public release of the school grades and the next round of state testing! Now we are supposed to believe that in such a short period of time, some schools improved so dramatically that their grades rose from an F to an A? Such claims on the part of the city are ridiculous and make a mockery of “accountability.”

The best commentary on the grades, I thought, came from Ellen Foote, the principal at I.S. 289, which received a D last year only two weeks after being named a Blue Ribbon school from the U.S. Department of Education. Foote said that her staff made no changes after receiving a D. They just continued doing what they had always done, looking at internal assessments, science reports, writing samples, and math projects. When she learned that the school’s grade this year was an A, she laughed, according to a story in The New York Sun. “I was just rolling on the floor,” said the principal in response to the school's A.

More such “accountability” and the whole concept of accountability will be discredited.



If Bloomberg and Klein were to set an example of accountability by admitting to their mistakes, then I would respect them more than I do now. Instead, they have concocted a strange-tasting, indigestible mixture of "accountability talk" and glossy PR.

Schools, by contrast, tend to doubt their own greatest successes. I imagine few schools actually believe in the validity of the report cards; yet they are under enormous pressure to bring up their grades, even if they are already doing well. Last year a principal whose school received an A told me, "This is not good news." She explained that it would be difficult to keep the A, as there were so many unpredictable factors.

Ellen Foote has my respect, but I doubt she is typical. Probably not too many principals roll on the floor laughing, at least not publicly. Schools have a split sense of reality: they distrust the report cards, but are obliged to strive for better grades. Some schools have already begun test prep (I mean actual test prep, not regular instruction) for the January ELA exam.

If we have made such phenomenal progress, why can't we turn our attention to the teaching of history, literature, mathematics, science, languages, and the arts? If we have not made such phenomenal progress, why can't we do likewise?

Diana Senechal

So who is holding Bloomberg/Klein "accountable" for the failure to improve NYC schools?

Bloomberg/Klein seem quite adept at passing the buck. Why are they not taking responsiblity for ensuring that real improvements happen in our schools instead of developing a convoluted "assessment" system that means nothing to no one?

This is one more classic example why "testing and accountablity" along with the standards movement will fail to improve our schools. Every aspect of schooling (curricula, teaching, assessments) need to be continually improved for children to learn well. Over-reliance upon very failable assessments will *never* generate a path towards a better quality education.

Really, NYC schools need someone to be reponsible for ensuring that all our children receive a quality education. It does not seem to be happening under the current system.

I sincerely hope that the schools are getting better the way Bloomberg/Klein say they are, but I'm certainly not going to believe it because it says so on a progress report - a progress report designed, by the way, by the very people who are now saying that it proves how successful they are. In that sense, it's like playing a made up game with a little kid where the kid is making up the rules as you go and - amazingly - always wins.

It amazes me to hear the talk about how these report cards are the reason that schools are improving. I just don't see how knowing their school is going to be graded makes it so that kids learn more. I don't get how receiving a yearly letter grade automatically makes teachers better teachers.

Accountability only makes sense as a measurement of other efforts and reforms. In New York, at least, those other reforms are just more tests and measurements. More tests don't teach kids. That's just not the way it works.

This just goes to point out that the silly shoes are on the feet not of the testers and politicians, but of the unions and activists who invented the phrase "high stakes testing". whipped people into a frenzy, and pushed schools into the idiocy of "teaching to the test".

A good school will know that they are teaching what they should be teaching, and keep on doing it. They'll remain confident that if the test scores are bad, it will be the tests that get changed, not their program.

A bad school that is sincere about turning around will look to truly good schools to imitate, not those who merely navigate one year's test.

It seems a bit naive to argue that good schools will "remain confident that if the test scores are bad, it will be the tests that get changed, not their program." Poorly designed accountability systems do us all a terrible disservice, because they destroy schools' confidence that right will somehow prevail. They also undermine public confidence in any assessment, good or bad. As public confidence evaporates, the work of honest reform becomes all the more difficult.


I personally know of many students who are reading and writing at kindergarten level in the 5th grade at our school who passed this round of ELA tests. It is a voting year, and the retention of personal power is sometimes a greater initiative toward test improvement than the education of our children. We need to end standardized testing, and implement real levels of accountability which tests understanding within the contexts of all learning modalities.

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