First Person

Opinion: Letter grades nice but look beyond data

Julie Poppen, who has a fourth-grader enrolled in a Boulder public school, is editor of

Grades. How we love ‘em. They tell us if we’re worthy. An A makes you feel good, doesn’t it? A B? Now you’re feeling a bit mediocre. C? Yuck. D? Let’s not talk about that.

In light of this national fixation, Colorado parents may be interested in a new website that grades the state’s public schools. This may be especially helpful during the current open enrollment period.

Image of school grades B, C and D.Unveiled Monday by a range of education-oriented organizations, Colorado School Grades tallies grades for all the state’s public schools based on standardized test data and student improvement in core subject areas.

I like data, and this site definitely provides some relevant information – particularly the growth data.

However, I caution parents against over-reliance on data and grades. If a school in your neighborhood gets a C does that mean you should scratch it off your list? Not necessarily. There are so many nuances that won’t be reflected in these grades. Think of a school’s special programs, for instance, or that rock star art teacher.

I did a quick test of the system by plugging in my zip code. Turns out my kid is enrolled in a solid B school. Ironically, the number one school that pops up in Boulder – earning an outstanding A+ – is a charter school, Horizons K-8, which, as I understand it, doesn’t put much emphasis – if any – on letter grades.

The problem with that school, and the other great schools in Boulder and beyond, is that they’re very hard to get into. More often than not (at least in Boulder) they’re charter schools, which means you’re at the mercy of the lottery system. (I addressed this issue in a previous post on open enrollment.)

All this data can make your head spin. By now, I think we can all agree that academic proficiency data tells you only so much – primarily it tells you about the demographic mix of a school building.

Why growth data matters

More interesting to me is the growth data. The key is to find out whether the school’s students are on an upward academic trajectory. Even in high-achieving schools, students should be improving.

In the growth category, my daughter’s school ranks very similarly to the very high-achieving neighborhood school a few blocks away. My daughter’s neighborhood school is 21 percent Hispanic or Latino; the school down the street is far less diverse, with only 10 percent of students identified as Hispanic or Latino. Both have 22 percent low-income students.

My daughter’s school gets a B; the school down the street gets an A. Yet I happen to place a value on the diversity factor – especially being in Boulder, which just isn’t very diverse at all. Yet, that is something – along with my daughter’s school’s awesome Garden to Table program, its Boltage bike and walk-to-school program, or its outstanding art teacher and multiple after-school clubs – that are not reflected in this nifty new data tool. Nor is the fact that our school has ranked consistently higher on school climate surveys than other area schools, which also happens to be important to me. (Key lesson here: Sure, check out all the data you can; but always visit a school you are considering to learn more).

How the grading is done

The Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs calculated the grades for Colorado School Grades using the same variables and weights as the Colorado Department of Education’s School Performance Framework, also known as SchoolView. That data includes indicators such as a school’s academic achievement, academic growth, academic growth gaps and, for high schools, college/career readiness.

Colorado School Grades then crunched the data through a forced grading curve that ranks schools from top to bottom. The top 10 percent of schools were give an A grade (A+, A or A-), the next 25 percent were given a B rating, the next 50 percent were given a C rating, the next 10 percent were given a D rating, and the bottom 5 percent were give an F rating.

For parents, the grading system makes sense compared to the arcane language now used by the state in determining school ratings.

What to do with the info

However, now I’m left with the information that my daughter’s school is not A material. So, what can I do? She’s in fourth grade, so, for many reasons, it’s too late to switch. I volunteer when I can. And yes, I’d love it if my daughter’s school was more like Horizons K-8, a charter school with a well-earned reputation for greatness that features mixed age groupings, multiple forms of assessment other than just grades, individualized goal setting, student-led family conferences, and small class sizes. I have visited this school and marveled at the quality and creativity evident in the student art on the walls.

But my daughter’s neighborhood school has 600-plus students. How in the world do you make systemic change in a school like that? Like many public schools and colleges, bureaucracy is entrenched.

And there are certain factors that cannot be ignored: Horizons K-8 is 88 percent white; has only 7 percent low-income kids; and 2 percent Latino or Hispanic students. Perhaps more importantly, Horizons has half the number of students my daughter’s school has – and three more grade levels. Waiting lists are lengthy. How can we replicate these sought-after schools so that every child really has a chance of attending one? How can we – as parents – help to transform the culture of large, public neighborhood schools?

That’s personally what I’d like to know. Meantime, check out Colorado School Grades, and check out the state’s SchoolView system. I will say, the former is much easier to navigate and understand than the latter if you’re short on time – although it doesn’t provide links to actual schools, which would be helpful. I still like SchoolView, however, because of its engaging visual interface, which clearly shows you whether a school is both performing at a proficient level and improving. (Click on Colorado Growth Model, then View Data).

But don’t forget that data is simply that, data. Get out there and visit schools in person. Ask questions based on your own values regarding what constitutes a quality education. For starters, check out this school checklist courtesy of Colorado School Grades.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of the New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.