Latest high school directory drops letter grades, signaling changes to come

As parents peruse the latest official listing of the city’s high schools, they will find new statistics about the share of students at each school who feel satisfied or who are on track to graduate. But unlike past years, they won’t find one much-debated metric: a school’s A-to-F letter grade.

The Department of Education’s 2014-15 grade-less high school directory is the first clear sign of the new administration’s progress toward solving a high-stakes puzzle: How to distinguish among the system’s 1,800 schools with enough nuance to capture each one’s strengths and weaknesses and account for factors beyond its control, while still offering useful judgments for educators and parents.

The question is a crucial one, since families use the city’s school reports to decide where to enroll and the city has used the reports when deciding which schools to single out for special support or for closure. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for the removal of the overall letter grades from schools’ annual progress reports, echoing critics who call the grades overly simplistic and unreliable.

“It definitely is a step in the right direction,” said Dionne Grayman, co-founder of the public-school parent advocacy group, NYCpublic. “I think schools are complex, and I think creating a system that speaks to the complexity gives me more information, so I can make an informed decision.”

Introduced in 2007, the school progress reports embodied former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s data-driven approach to school accountability. While the 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.)

De Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, has made clear that she shares her boss’ wariness about the existing school reports and their letter grades, which compare a school to similar schools.

In an April speech, Fariña said her department would seek a “clear, transparent” rating system that avoids “oversimplifying or arbitrarily labeling schools.” She said that more than 75 elementary and middle schools last year earned low grades on their progress reports even though their students performed better than the citywide average on the state exams—a result of those school-to-school comparisons.

She reiterated her dim view of the current rating system at an event this month, where she told a group of educators that she had no idea what grades their schools had earned on their progress reports.

“I never checked because I don’t care,” she told them.

Instead, Fariña has proposed merging information from the data-based progress reports with the findings of official reviewers who at least once every two years visit each school to interview faculty members and observe instruction. Having stopped by more than 60 schools since January, Fariña insists that officials must visit schools more often in order to make sense of schools’ numbers.

“Carmen Fariña doesn’t believe you can judge the quality of a school by looking at spreadsheets at Tweed,” the education department headquarters, said Clara Hemphill, senior editor of Insideschools, an online guide for parents that reviews every school by combining data with visits by reporters. Fariña has said that she admires the website’s process for evaluating schools, Hemphill said.

The new high school directory reflects Fariña’s stance, leaving out the letter grades and adding data about the pace at which students are earning credits needed to graduate and their satisfaction with the school. Even the new title of that part of the directory – “School Performance” rather than “Accountability Data” – suggests a shift away from a focus on ratings and consequences.

The change could also be designed to reverse one consequence of the school ratings: Low letter grades have helped propel schools along downward spirals as the most engaged parents look to enroll their students in more highly rated schools.

“If you got a bad letter grade, you got stigmatized,” said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the group Alliance for Quality Education. (That was partially by design, since the Bloomberg administration encouraged families to “vote with their feet” and used a school’s demand as a factor in closure decisions.)

Ansari, one of the most vocal critics of the Bloomberg administration on education policy, said the reports have not fully accounted for the conditions beyond schools’ control, such as the degree to which students enter the school behind academically or the level of support the schools receive—though the grading system’s school-to-school comparisons was designed to adjust for such factors.

As department officials rethink the way schools are assessed, they have sought outside advice about designing school reports that will be more useful to parents and educators and that “diminish” the role of test scores, according to people they have consulted. They have also contacted the group that designed the student, teacher, and parent surveys that Chicago includes in its school progress reports alongside test results, suspension rates, and other data.

“They’re doing a pretty major overhaul,” said Sean Corcoran, a professor at New York University who has written about the reports and met recently with department officials.

In fact, some of the changes that city officials appear to be pursuing were floated in a department report released just before Bloomberg left office. The report proposed incorporating ratings from school visits into the progress reports, along with other data such as course grades and even measures of student behaviors like time management.

Experts noted, though, that such alternative measures are not yet reliable enough to include in citywide reports, meaning that the next batch of school reports will likely have to repackage existing data. One risk of the overhaul is that grade-less reports with added data may offer more precision, but less clarity, they added.

“The question is whether New York can get the balance right,” said Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. “You want to provide accurate information, but you can’t overwhelm people.”