Friday, December 14, 2007

Mark Weprin's City Council Testimony

The following is Assemblyman Mark Weprin's magnificent testimony before the City Council Education Committee on Dec. 10:

Good morning. I am Mark Weprin and I represent the 24th Assembly District in Eastern Queens. As a father of two public school students and a champion of New York City public schools, I submit the following testimony to the New York City Council on the subject of the New York City Department of Education (DOE)’s recently released school progress reports.

The progress reports are an attempt to inform the public about the
performance of New York City public schools. While I agree with DOE’s
focus on academic excellence, I take issue with its methodology and its
failure to fully explain the assessments to the public. The grades,
which were supposed to provide parents with valuable information, have
mostly generated confusion, and the media has exacerbated the situation
with fuzzy terminology: DOE’s Progress Reports have been regularly
referred to as report cards, which is a misnomer. The grades are meant
to show schools’ progress – which is not the same as school quality –
and they do not achieve even that much. While I support evaluating
public schools, I believe that DOE’s recent attempt falls far short of
its goals.

The first problem is that the category of “student progress” accounted
for fifty-five percent of a school’s grade, and the DOE equated student
progress with changes in test scores from one year to the next. So a
school in which the students scored the same for two years in a row is
considered to have shown no progress, even if most students did well
both years, while a school in which the students’ test scores increased,
even if they remained low, gets points for improvement. This method of
grading unfairly penalizes high-performing schools such as those in
Eastern Queens.

Even worse, DOE’s definition of academic progress is based on the idea
that high-stakes standardized tests accurately assess how much students
have learned, but there are several reasons to doubt that premise. As I
have often stated, the extreme emphasis on test preparation has taken
away from real learning in classrooms across the City. So if the
students in a school increased their test scores from one year to the
next, their “improvement” is just as likely to be a result of excessive
test preparation drills as a reflection of academic progress. And if
higher test scores stem from more time spent on test preparation, they
may in fact indicate that less learning has taken place.

On the other hand, a decrease in test scores could mean that a few
students were not feeling well on the day of the test, or that they
happened to choose the wrong answers on a couple of multiple choice
questions. If students’ scores went down from third grade to fourth
grade, maybe it’s because the third graders take each State test for two
days while the fourth graders spend three days per test. (New York’s bar
exam is only two days.) Test scores can decline for a number of reasons,
but the change does not mean that students and teachers in a school are
suddenly performing at a lower level than they did the previous year.

I also have serious reservations about the surveys of parents, students,
and teachers that the DOE used to evaluate the portion of a school’s
grade that reflects “school environment.” Every community has a few
naysayers who are always full of criticism. Unfortunately, they are the
most likely to submit surveys and to influence others to share in their
negativism. Such individuals can have a disproportionate impact on the
school’s grade.

The blatant inconsistencies in the grades reveal how ridiculous they
really are. Some schools that did well on their Quality Reviews did
poorly on the Progress Reports; some schools that were listed as among
the most persistently dangerous in New York received A’s and B’s from
DOE. What are parents to think when they receive such contradictory

I have no qualms about the concept of issuing progress reports for New
York City schools. Any institution that uses taxpayer dollars must be
accountable to the public. But a single letter grade cannot possibly
represent everything the public needs to know about a school and its
progress. Fair evaluations would take into account student safety,
parent involvement, teacher qualifications, art and music offerings, and
the school’s learning environment. Feedback from parents and teachers
should come from large groups of survey responders who filled out clear,
intuitive questionnaires. Most of all, we should not rely on scores from
high-stakes standardized tests. Changes in test results from one year to
the next do not reveal what we really need to know about our schools:
how hard teachers and principals have worked and how much students have
learned. The Progress Reports are not report cards, and the DOE grades
simply are not accurate assessments of our schools.

Assemblymember Mark S. Weprin

56-21 Marathon Parkway

Little Neck, New York 11362

Telephone (718) 428-7900

Facsimile (718) 428-8575

1 comment:

Patrick Sullivan said...

With the mayor, chancellor and all the senior ranks of the administration sending their kids to private school, it's refreshing to see someone who has some skin in the game. Of course Weprin knows what's happening in the schools and isn't fooled by the administration's PR campaign.

I doubt the Queens Assembly delegation ever realized that mayoral control would mean the elimination of what autonomy existed for their schools as the mayor eliminated district authority and centralized all decision-making in Manhattan.