Rating New York City’s ‘mind boggling’ school ratings

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"Most parents will have a really mind-boggling time trying to figure this out," and, "It's taken reporters years to understand this."

That's how veteran education reporter Beth Fertig of WNYC described the grades the New York City Department of Education hands out to high schools to measure student performance. In essence, the grades are meant to measure the schools' progress, rather than objective quality. They describe, or attempt to describe, how well these institutions do when they compete against themselves.

This has had the unfortunate effect of making these grades, for many parents, useless. Unlike other simple letter-grade indicators the city uses—like the health-inspection grades for restaurants—the school grades don't actually say much about whether a school is meeting comprehensible standards—whether they are good at educating students or not good at educating students.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education expanded the system, handing out grades for elementary schools and junior high schools.

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At the time, I spoke to a principal who got an A this year and lower grades in the past, who suggested to me that the grades aren't even all that helpful when it comes to measuring progress.

"It's crazy," said the principal, who asked not to be named out of concern that the administration might take it out on the school. "It's absolutely crazy. Next year, I can get a B."

"It's still the same school," the principal said. "Same teachers, same students."

The new high school progress grades showed an uptick in the number of schools getting the highest possible grade. But as Rachel Cromidas at Gotham Schools reported, the "standards may be too low" and "the high grades might not be fully warranted."

There is, of course, another yardstick educators use for measuring how well a school is performing: by measuring what happens to the school's graduates.

As Lisa Fleisher at the Journal reported recently, "Only about 40% of students who graduate within four years were prepared for college."

Since it was the first time schools were graded on students' college-readiness, the true picture of "progress" on that count will have to wait.