More Schools Are Struggling, City Progress Reports Show

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5:00 p.m. | Updated The number of elementary and middle schools receiving D's and F's under New York City's grading system more than doubled this year from last after Department of Education officials did away with a safety net that prevented some schools from falling too far.

A rule was put in place last year that no school could drop more than two letter grades in its annual School Progress Report, as a way to help schools adjust to the increased difficulty of the standardized state tests without suffering for it. But this year, when the tests underwent more modest alterations, that cushion was removed.

At the same time, the city instituted a curve that assigned D's and F's to 10 percent of schools — double the percentage of 4.7 percent of schools that were assigned D's and F's last year.

Over all, 79 schools received D's and 32 received F's, a total of 51 more schools this year than last to receive the two lowest grades assigned under the system.

Under the same curve, 298, about 25 percent of schools, were given A's; 411, about 35 percent, received B's; and 354, about 30 percent, received C's.

By increasing the percentage of schools to receive low grades, the city is deliberately widening the pool of schools that could be considered for closing or transformation. This year, 109 schools met the city's criteria for closure, compared to 53 last year.

City education officials sought to emphasize that while scores in previous years sometimes swung wildly from top of the class to a danger zone that could lead to closing, many schools' grades did not change from last year.

That fluctuation had befuddled parents and school staff members for years as they tried to understand how the grades related to their own experiences with the schools.

"We have a really high level of stability this year, which is a good thing," said Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer for the city's Department of Education.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky also said he believed the scores offered "a more precise and accurate representation of how the schools are actually performing."

About 40 percent of the 1,174 elementary and middle schools that received progress reports had the same grade as last year, and over all, 88 percent either stayed the same or moved one grade up or down from last year.

Seventy-nine schools dropped by two or more letter grades, and 55 rose by the same amount.

"There is movement and that’s good because we are measuring one year of data and we expect schools will go up and down, but we don’t want to see movement caused by something that’s external to the kids," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said, referring to changes in the state exams that caused incredible increases and then a drop-off in schools' grades.

A different evaluation system is applied to the city's high schools, and those grades will be released next month.

The Department of Education has used grade curves sporadically since the progress reports were introduced in 2007. Mr. Polakow-Suransky said that the cutoffs currently in place were also used in 2007, but after test score inflation led 97 percent of schools to receive A's or B's in 2009, the city reverted to using a curve as a means of creating stability.

With too much unknown about how the state's exams will change from year to year, the city is sticking with that curve for a second year in a row, though some of the percentages were adjusted.

One other change this year is that the city is now rewarding schools with extra credits if their black and Latino male students who have scored in the lowest third in the past are now making progress.

Several schools that benefited from this new feature were Public School 60 Woodhaven in Queens, Intemediate School 98 Bay Academy in Brooklyn, and P.S. 87 Middle Village in Queens. Mr. Polakow-Suransky said the department planned to study these schools and take their best methods to other schools that may be struggling.

Icahn Charter School 3 is one of the 11 schools that dropped by three letter grades. The school's grade on its progress report fell to a D this year from an A the year before.

Jeffrey Litt, superintendent of the Icahn Charter Schools, said the school was being penalized for admitting more special education students this year, which resulted in a drop in its test scores. Icahn 3 is also adjusting to a new neighborhood and many new students, after it moved from the southeast Bronx to the southwest last year.

"I can’t make rhyme or reason of these progress reports," Mr. Litt said. "I personally don’t believe they illustrate what they need to illustrate; I don’t think they tell the whole story, and parents are drawing conclusions from them."

All of the other Icahn schools that got progress reports this year received A's. One of them jumped to an A this year from a C the year before.

For the South Bronx Classical Charter School, this year’s progress report was also a reversal of fortune. Last year when the state exams became more difficult, the school’s scores dropped and it received a D on its progress report. This year, the city gave it an A.

Lester Long, the school’s executive director, said he owed his school’s improved grade to the decision to abandon test preparation.

“We’re pushing a more standards-based curriculum and not just looking at the old test and hoping it’s on the new tests,” Mr. Long said.