The latest school grades released by the city's Education Department are bogus. An astonishing 84% of 1,058 elementary and middle schools received an A (compared with 38% last year and 23% in 2007). Another 13% got a B. Only seven schools rated a D or an F.
Four schools labeled "persistently dangerous" by the state got an A from the city, and three of these deeply troubled schools got a B. Three schools that the city wants to close because of low performance got an A. Every school that got an F last year got an A or B this year.
The problems with the report cards were apparent from the start. When the system was launched in 2007, testing experts warned that it relied too heavily on single-year changes in standardized test scores, which are subject to random error and therefore unreliable. But the Education Department did not listen.
The report card system makes a mockery of accountability. No one can be held accountable when almost everyone gets an A or B. No one can tell which schools are getting better or worse. Nor do parents get enough information to make good choices.
This debacle is caused mainly by the state tests, which have been dumbed down in recent years. Daily News reporters Meredith Kolodner and Rachel Monahan were the first to break the story about the collapse of state standards between 2006 and 2009. Last June, they revealed that the test questions have gotten easier and more predictable. They found that the state asks nearly identical questions year after year, and the excessive focus on test preparation has corrupted the test results.
A few weeks ago, Kolodner reported that city students were able to pass the state tests by guessing. After the article appeared, a city schoolteacher, Diana Senechal, tried an experiment, which she described at gothamschools.org. She took two state tests without reading the questions. She answered the questions at random (checking A, B, C, D) and received enough points to reach Level 2, sufficient for promotion in the city.
Because the state tests have been dumbed down, test scores soared. The number of students at the lowest level - those who are at risk of being held back in their grade - dropped dramatically. In sixth-grade reading, 10.1% (7,019) were at Level 1 in 2006, but by 2009 only 0.2% (146) were. In fifth-grade reading, the proportion of Level 1 students fell from 8.9% in 2006 (6,120) to 1.0% (654) in 2009. In seventh-grade math, the proportion of Level 1 students plummeted from 18.8% (14,231 students) in 2006 to 2.1% (1,457) in 2009.
In almost every grade, the state has lowered the bar, making it easier for students to get a higher score. In 2006, students had to earn around 60% of the points on the state math tests to reach Level 3, which the state defines as proficiency, but by 2009, they needed to earn only 50%. With teachers administering daily practice tests containing questions very nearly the same as those that would appear on the state tests, it became easier for students to become "proficient."
What the report cards do not show is that most school districts in New York City scored in the bottom 5% of the state in science and social studies or that nearly a third of the schools don't have a teacher of the arts. Those subjects don't count.
The school report cards should be revised or scrapped. First, they are based on dumbed-down state tests. Second, the city will hand over $33 million to teachers and principals as a bonus for these phony scores (and more later to high school teachers and principals). Third, the report cards focus only on reading and mathematics, thus neglecting science, history, the arts, literature, civics and geography.
We are reaching a perilous stage where the test scores go up while real education - the kind that is available in the best schools - disappears.
Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University. Her new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," will be published next spring.