New York City Changes School Evaluation System: No More Letter Grades

New York City Public Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a day before a rally demanding improvements for the city’s failing schools, announced a plan to get rid of letter grades used to evaluate the institutions, write Aaron Short and Carl Campanile of the New York Post. Fariña said that it was a new day for education in the city, and there would be no more forcing change on people — now there would be creating change with people.

Organizers of the rally gave her an “F” for minimizing objective test scores for measurements like quality reviews.

“Eliminating report cards is another rejection of accountability for failing schools,” warned Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge. “There are already enough opinions about the schools — parents want facts.”

Fariña stood by her plan, saying that schools have qualities that cannot be summarized by a letter grade. She added that “schools are not restaurants”.

Some of the criteria that could be used in place of letter grades include strength of curriculum, school environment, and quality. Writing for The New York Times, Kate Taylor reports that Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees that ending former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s system of using letter grades to evaluate schools is a good idea. He feels that letter grades are too simplistic and, at times, can be inaccurate. Fariña is also hopeful that the change will allow parents will find it easier to interpret data.

“It makes things much more transparent, and it actually gives a lot more information both to parents and to staff about where they need to move and how they need to move,” Ms. Fariña said in an interview.

Bloomberg’s system, put into place in 2006, gave a school one overall grade and separate grades for student progress, overall student performance, school environment, and improvement made by lowest performing students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. For elementary and middle schools, test scores were 85% of the overall letter grade. There were also annual quality reviews, usually done by superintendents, which assessed such categories as quality of instruction and teacher collaboration. Results of the reviews and the progress reports were used to make decisions like whether or not a school should be closed.

Fariña and de Blasio are under some amount of pressure from charter school advocates who are denouncing failing schools and have run advertisements which describe a crisis in schools with low-income and minority students. Their hope is that legislators will remove the cap on the number of charter schools in the city and will allow charter schools to have space in city school buildings.

Fariña, in a speech earlier this week, said her priorities were “joy in the classroom and collaboration among schools”.  In her speech later in the week, she stated that test scores would play a part in school evaluation, albeit a reduced one.

“She’s not turning her back on the tests, but the administration is doing what it said it would do in de-emphasizing their importance,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at CUNY’s Graduate Center and Brooklyn College.

In her speech, published on Chalkbeat New York, Fariña reiterates her six essential elements for school improvement and student progress: rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.

The name of the new evaluation method, according to her speech, is School Quality Snapshot, which will replace the Progress Report. The Snapshot will provide “the first balanced picture of a school’s quality”. In Fariña’s words, we will stop judging schools and students based on a single grade; we will no longer penalize a school for its weaknesses; this is no longer a competition. It’s all about making a difference in our children’s lives.