Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 11:03 UK

NYC's school cards controversial

By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC News, New York

American pupils and teacher
New York schools are graded to help parents judge how they are doing

The New York model of report cards for school is still in its infancy.

It started with the school year in 2006-07 and the authorities are in the process of handing out reports for 2007-08.

The programme is an initiative by New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg and a central plank of his education reform.

The city's department of education says the aim is to make schools more accountable in the results of their teaching methods.

SCHOOL REPORT CARDS
Schools awarded D or F subject to improvement measures
Same principle for schools getting C three years in a row
Over time, school awarded F likely to close
Schools getting A and B eligible for financial rewards

Under the system each elementary, middle and high school is graded with an A, B, C, D or F.

These grades are based on three areas of school life: the school environment (15% of a school's overall score), student performance (25% of the overall score) and student progress (60% of the overall score).

The schools are measured both against similar schools and also on a wider level with schools across the board.

Some of our highly rated schools got low grades with school report cards
Aminda Gentile
United Federation of Teachers
Jim Liebman, who oversees the progress reports for the department, said the grades created motivation for schools to do the best they can.

He said progress had become the focus rather than results.

"The key thing is to look at how much the school contributes to the kid.

"It's not what the kid brings to the school. Privileged kids tend to perform better than others, so if you measure just what they bring, rather than progress, that's no good."

Controversy

However the report cards have not been without controversy. Critics have questioned how the entire experience of a school could be reduced to one grade.

SCHOOL GRADES 2006-07
A: 279 schools (23%)
B: 461 schools (38%)
C: 312 schools (25%)
D: 99 schools (8%)
F: 50 schools (4%)

Source: New York Department of Education

Aminda Gentile is the vice-president of United Federation of Teachers. Whilst she accepts that schools and teachers need to be accountable, she said the emphasis was on test preparation because standardised tests were how performance was measured.

"Everything is about the test, subjects such as art and social studies are pushed aside," she said.

Also, when focusing on progress, the schools that were already at the top of the tree were not going to do so well, because progress was relatively limited, she said.

And it had put results from the report cards in conflict with other grading systems used for schools.

"Some of our highly rated schools got low grades with school report cards, because there wasn't sufficient progress, because students are already highly graded, so the amount of growth they could make was limited."

Some of these issues have been addressed by the city in the past year. Whilst each school gets a single grade there are now also grades for each of the three categories: environment, performance and progress.

'Not a true picture'

But Ms Gentile said this was not enough.

"You get a picture of the school, but not a true picture."

As with all such initiatives, the scheme has both its critics and advocates.

"I think there are positives and negatives," said Robert Tobias, a director for teaching and learning at New York University.

He agreed with the United Federation of Teachers that the focus on tests and progress could skew results for some schools.

"I think the real difficulty is that it's very hard in any system to catch the full complexity and reduce it to a single grade rating, also you're looking at year to year variations, rather than looking at trends over time."

But he added: "Relative to other systems that have been tried, this is one of the better ones.

"I like the comprehensive analysis and the comparisons to all schools."

It is still very hard to assess how over time school report cards will work to improve a school's performance. If England does use the New York model, the advantage is that it can learn from New York's mistakes.


How the categories are measured

The school environment category is based on attendance rates and on the results of questionnaires completed by parents, pupils and teachers.

Parents are questioned on a range of issues, such as how well the school welcomes them and communicates with them.

They are asked about school discipline, bullying policies and drug or alcohol abuse in school.

Pupils are also given an opportunity to comment on similar issues, while teachers are asked about the quality of school leadership, discipline and the expectations held for pupils.

Student performance is measured in elementary and middle schools by pupils' scores on the New York state tests and in high schools by diplomas and graduation rates.

The third and main category for the school report - student progress - measures elementary and middle school pupils' progress from one year to the next on the New York state tests in English language, the arts and mathematics.

For high schools, progress is measured by credit accumulation and by how many Regents tests (state exams needed to complete a high school diploma) students pass.

A school's results in each area are compared to results of all schools serving the same school years throughout the city. Results are also compared to up to 40 similar schools.

The government says the design and contents of report cards in England will be subject to a full consultation by the end of the year. A white paper will be published in the spring.

Additional reporting: BBC News education reporter Katherine Sellgren



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