Going Grade-less

Under gentler rating system, schools will no longer be ranked or graded

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Chancellor Fariña speaking at P.S. 503, whose principal Bernadette Fitzgerald will lead one of the Brooklyn field support centers.

The city has revamped the way it rates schools, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday, transforming school report cards into something more like online reviews.

Schools will no longer receive annual progress reports that rank them and give them A-to-F letter grades, which Fariña and many educators have condemned as blunt and unreliable. Instead, beginning this fall, the city will produce separate guides for educators and families about every school that highlight the results of surveys and classroom observations alongside students’ test scores and course grades.

The new evaluations reflect the school system’s sharp swerve under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña away from a philosophy of competition and consequences as the drivers of change, to one where school improvement is seen as the fruit of cooperation and support. In fact, Fariña did not say Wednesday whether low-performing schools would face any repercussions or interventions — a point that critics seized on — only saying that they would be given customized support.

“This is a totally new approach,” Fariña said during a speech at P.S. 503/P.S. 506 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “We are no longer penalizing a school for its weaknesses.”

Since 2006, the city has issued schools annual progress reports with overall A-to-F grades and percentile rankings. While the education 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.)

Because low-rated schools could face sanctions and declining enrollment, critics said the grades spurred some principals to manipulate data and teachers to center their classes around test preparation. Meanwhile, because schools were compared to their peers, sometimes schools with scores above the city average still earned low grades on the reports.

“I don’t think that they were an accurate or fair representation in a lot of instances,” said Dionne Grayman, co-founder of the public-school parent advocacy group, NYCpublic.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration "misled hundreds of thousands of parents."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said the letter grades given to schools under the previous administration “misled hundreds of thousands of parents.”

More description than assessment, the new guides are meant to give parents a fuller picture of schools and help educators take stock of what’s working and what needs to be fixed without feeling judged, officials said. They repackage many of the same metrics that the previous administration used to measure schools, but they avoid giving them final ratings — which under the Bloomberg administration could lead to sanctions and even closure if schools earned low grades.

Now, the city will create a shorter “quality snapshot” for families and a “quality guide” for staffers or those who want more data. Neither features an overall school rating.

The snapshots include student test scores, graduation rates, and some survey data, as the progress reports did, but add ratings of the quality of teaching and curriculum in schools that are based on formal school observations.

The 16-to-18-page guides describe schools’ student populations, give excerpts from the formal review findings, and provide detailed data about how well students performed on tests and schoolwork, similar to the progress reports. But instead of giving schools letter grades based on student performance, the guides say whether schools are “not meeting,” “approaching,” “meeting,” or “exceeding” a target score that the city will calculate for each school.

Sean Corcoran, an education economics professor at New York University who consulted department officials this year as they redesigned the evaluations, said the new guides feature much of the same information as the older progress reports. But by removing the overall ratings, the new guides will force readers to look more closely at data they may have glanced over before, he added.

“These reports do a good job of making families and schools look a little deeper than just a letter grade,” he said.

But the lack of letter grades also could present a new burden for families sorting through dozens of school guides during the admissions process. School officials acknowledged that on Wednesday, saying the department would have to train parents to read the new guides.

The evaluations put new emphasis on the results of the annual surveys that students, parents, and educators take, as well as the findings of the formal school observations. Fariña said she would improve those tools by making sure they measure certain characteristics of good schools, such as strong leadership and close ties with families. Officials also said they would conduct more school observations this year, though more than a quarter of schools will not be visited.

While the surveys and observations might catch qualities of a school that test scores miss, they are also susceptible to tampering, some educators said. Geraldine Maione, the former principal of William Grady Career & Technical High School, said she knew of schools that gave students and parents food while they took the survey as a way to boost the results. Because the school review visits are announced ahead of time, they often amount to “dog and pony shows,” she added.

A former department official who helped design the original progress reports said that some metrics on the new quality snapshots, such as “How interesting and challenging is the curriculum?” are “impossible to measure consistently.”

“There’s no additional sunlight there,” the official said, “just the replacement of a scale that seems too harsh to some with language that seems mushier to others.”

Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including "When You Wish Upon A Star."
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Before Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke at P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 in Brooklyn on Oct. 1, 2014, students played songs on the violin, including “When You Wish Upon A Star.”

Fariña also said very little about how the department will use the new evaluations, particularly when they show that schools are struggling.

In the past, schools that earned consecutive low grades were given improvement plans and could eventually face closure. The new administration has made clear that closure will now be used only as a last resort, but Fariña did not describe on Wednesday what sort of interventions the city will take for schools found to be low performing. Officials said in a briefing after her speech that they are still discussing how to use the new evaluations to design supports for schools, but they “anticipate talking more about that in January.”

Groups that supported the previous administration and have been critical of Fariña called her speech a disappointment and said it failed to address head-on the city’s many struggling schools. Even people who praised the new evaluations said it was troubling that the city did not say how it will use the ratings to prop up low-performing schools.

Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College, said the evaluation shift represents an improvement from the previous administration’s “top-down approach to reform.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “it does not outline a real plan for what [this administration] intends to do with failing schools.”

Sarah Darville and Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede