During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for an end to the letter grades the city gives to each public school in New York. He called them “blunt instruments” that don’t give the nuanced portrait that policymakers, teachers, students, and parents deserve. His spokeswoman said last month that the grades offered “little real insight to parents and are not a reliable indicator of how schools are actually performing.”
The letter grade system is the hallmark of a broader push by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to bring data into the city’s classrooms. That was an important initiative — it’s vital for a school’s success that we’re able to know as much as possible about the education our students receive. It’s a complex task that requires a close examination of a school’s performance. Putting as much relevant data in one place serves us all — students, families, educators, city officials, and taxpayers alike — well.
But the letter grades that now accompany that data do none of us any good. Instead, they turn a complex dataset into overly-simplistic categories that make it easier than ever before to paint schools with a broad brush, rather than dedicate to each school the specific attention it needs. The letter grades, like de Blasio’s office said, oversimplify the important data the city collects and uses to make determinations about a school’s progress.
At its core, the letter grade system also suffers from a lack of transparency. Because it values improvement over performance, a school where most students are excelling in their studies may receive a middling grade, which a school where students have improved yet are still performing poorly could see a higher grade than the year before. Calculations like this make the Bloomberg-era letter grades nearly inscrutable to many who see a conflict between a school’s perceived performance and the grade the city assigns it. Take, for instance, top-ranking Stuyvesant High, one of the nation’s highest ranked high schools. It scored a B grade during the early years of the ranking system even though its students were among the city’s top performers. Eventually, Bloomberg and schools commissioner Joel Klein changed the rubric, adding bonus points for high scores on the state Regents examinations and bringing schools like Stuyvesant back up to an A.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the letter grade system is that the scores help lock in a school’s status as “failing.” Take, for example, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Once one of the best public schools in the country, the city’s education progress report card has given the famed “Castle on the Parkway” an F grade for the last three years, ranking it in just the second percentile of New York City high schools. This grade oversimplifies the schools troubles — and yes, there are many — and makes it easier for the city to move toward shutting down or restructuring the school rather than use data to find new solutions.
That failing grade discourages some of the city’s best students from enrolling, so those who can go elsewhere, reducing the number of high-performing students who could help lift the school’s academic record. And each student who opts to enroll elsewhere means DeWitt Clinton loses money from its budget, placing jobs and vital programs at risk.
Advocates for letter grades and similar scoring systems — which are in place in 14 states nationwide — help nudge failing schools toward better performance, sparking greater change than other systems would. They say these scores make it easier to identify struggling schools and allow administrators to focus their attention and resources where it’s most needed.
But while it’s important that New York City eliminate the letter grade it assigns to schools, that alone won’t solve the education crisis facing our children. City education officials need to find a smart way to use data to identify the unique challenges facing schools and implement solutions to lift schools toward higher levels of performance. But turning data into scores of A through F means we’re all less likely to look at school data more closely, relying instead on the oversimplified picture the progress reports paint for New Yorkers.
Now is the time time to eliminate these letter grades, before another year of scores further obfuscate the performance and challenges that individual schools face. De Blasio should work with the City Council and education officials to undo this Bloomberg policy. There’s a vast amount of data out there, but thinking about it on an A to F scale doesn’t do New Yorkers any good.