Independent Report Gives Mixed Scores to City Schools' Letter Grades

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2:54 p.m. | Updated The A to F letter grade system that New York City's Education Department uses to rate each of its schools is an improvement over simply measuring schools based on standardized test scores, according to a report released on Thursday by the Independent Budget Office.

But the report also validated some parents' and principals' long-standing concern that the letter grades often reflect the economic and racial background of students, despite efforts to neutralize the differences. The Times' reporting supports this finding, and an article that ran two years ago revealed that among city high schools, those with the lowest scores on the annual progress reports had the highest percentages of poor, black and Hispanic students.

According to the Independent Budget Office report, this trend also extends to schools with high percentages of special education students, who often post low scores on the state exams and are less likely to earn a Regents diploma -- a seeming correlation that was mapped on SchoolBook in February.

The city's progress reports for high schools assign them a score out of 100, and 85 of those points are derived from schools' graduation rates and the percentage of students who pass Regents exams and regular courses. Schools with higher percentage of poor, black and Hispanic students are at a disadvantage, as these students are statistically less likely to perform well on these measurements. And while the city measures schools against those with similar student bodies, and gives extra credit to those that do well with certain types of students, the relationship between demographics and performance persists.

The report found that for elementary schools, a 10 percentage point enrollment increase in black and Hispanic students generally lowered the school's overall progress report score by more than one point. For middle schools, the same increase led to a drop of more than two points, on average.

City officials have defended the progress reports, calling them a model for other districts. Matthew Mittenthal, an Education Department spokesman, said the reports reflect the system's challenges.

"Closing the achievement gap in New York City is the core goal of our reform strategy," Mr. Mittenthal said, "but as long as it exists we should expect to see it show up in the school progress reports, which are designed to be an accurate reflection of our schools strengths and challenges."

The report also upholds another criticism of the city's methodology: that from year to year, the formula and cut-off scores change, making the grades incomparable across years. Of all the schools that received grades over five years, 53 percent got three or more different grades, according to the Independent Budget Office. This variability has confounded parents, particularly at popular schools where the occasional C or errant F can cause a furor.

For elementary and middle schools, some of this fluctuation is owed to the city reports' reliance on the New York State math and English exams, which were changed in 2010 following years of score inflation.

Editor's Note: This post was updated with a new quote from the Department of Education spokesman, Matthew Mittenthal.