Report Card Revolution (Ryan Sager)
Which is better: The school whose kids start the year with As and end the year with As? Or the one whose kids start with Ds but end up with Cs or even Bs? It’s far from an academic question. And city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was up on Capitol Hill last month urging Congress to recognize that, when it comes to identifying the schools doing the best job of rescuing kids from educational poverty, the answer is clearly the latter.
It’s called value-added testing, and Klein is bringing it to New York. Without it, our public-school system has been flying all-but-blind for decades. With it, we’ll at least finally be able to see the results of our policies.
The broad, squishy ideas of “standards” and “accountability” have been all the rage in education reform for some time. They were the basis for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which theoretically requires all public schools in America to make all students “proficient” in English and math.
But this approach has real problems:
Proficiency is a slippery thing. States get to decide what it means, and they can simply lower the bar until it hits the floor so that all students officially pass. (New York state’s Board of Regents is, pardon the pun, quite proficient at this.)
It’s also an arbitrary line. Klein, in his testimony yesterday, said this line offered a perverse incentive for schools to focus
Traditional measurements simply take a snapshot of student performance. They measure, for instance, how this year’s eighth graders did on math and English. But when we compare those numbers to performance in past years, we’re really comparing apples and oranges. We’re comparing one group of kids to an entirely different group – they may have different demographic makeups, or have had different curricula or schedules (longer or shorter classes, block scheduling or not). In short, in evaluating various school reforms, it’s almost impossible to tell what’s working and what’s not.
Klein’s initiative, which he outlined a bit before Congress, would go a long way toward ameliorating those problems. What he plans to do is to begin tracking each and every one of New York City’s 1.2 million schoolchildren throughout their entire careers in the public schools. It’s a tremendous undertaking, but certainly shouldn’t be outside the capability of a competent administration and a well-designed database.
Using this student-level data, Klein plans to start giving the city’s 1,400 schools letter grades – A, B, C, D or F – based on three factors: performance (in the traditional, snap-shot sense), school environment and (most importantly and weighted most heavily) progress. According to Klein’s office, the first value-added report cards should come this fall on the system’s 331 “empowerment” schools, then go system-wide by next fall.
More important than even the school-level report cards, however, is the level of sophistication this system could give the city in analyzing which reforms are working.
Does ending social promotion and making kids repeat grades work? Well, we’ll be able to look at a group of kids who were held back, look at a group who weren’t, control for other factors and compare results.
Do charter schools work better than traditional public schools for low-income kids? Well, we’ll be able to track individual children who made the switch (and similarly situated children who didn’t) and see how everyone did.
Education reform is tough, slow-going work. We may never see test-score improvements during Mayor Bloomberg’s or Chancellor Klein’s time that can directly be attributed to this particular innovation.
But make no mistake: This is big. It’s these sorts of fundamental, system-wide, structural reforms that New York City’s public-school system desperately needs. And when future mayors and schools chancellors are able to make better, and better-informed, decisions with the data from this new system, we’ll have Joel Klein to thank.
Ryan Sager is a columnist for the New York Post (where this article previously appeared), blogs at Miscellaneous Objections and Real Clear Politics, and is the author of the forthcoming The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.