Principals around the city are celebrating their top grades on the city’s annual school report cards today, and many say the system helped them plan and execute the progress that drove the slew of high scores.
They can do that because the report card grades rise with test score gains — and they also provide an intricate breakdown of exactly what elements brought the overall grade up or down.
Rowena Penn-Jackson, principal of P.S. 230 in the Bronx, realized that the school needed to place greater emphasis on teaching reading comprehension of non-fiction and poetry. Several principals at high-achieving schools said the reports showed them the school needed to devote more resources to English language learners.
Survey data nudged Democracy Prep Charter School’s Seth Andrew and Amber Charter School’s Vasthi Acosta to modify their methods of communicating effectively with parents. Hellenic Classical Charter School principal Christina Tettonis instituted more professional development sessions to train teachers to use test scores to personalize instruction for individual students.
The principals are following the Bloomberg administration’s original aim in making the reports, which was to give principals and teachers incentives to fine-tune their interactions with students in order to maximize learning. But not all principals are confident that the reports steer them in them right direction
An assistant principal in Brooklyn pointed out that students in his school came in as high achievers and so the school devotes its resources to other programs than preparing students for state exams. “We’re not jut going to do test prep just for the sake of the progress,” he said.
But the vast majority of principals I spoke with today said they follow the department’s charge to utilize the reports as they plan their school years.
One especially useful data point, principals said, is the so-called “peer index.” Each school’s progress report includes a list of up to 40 other schools with student populations most like their own. These are the schools that the reports compare against one another for grading purposes.
Principals said that list helps them share information and best practices with other schools that are likely facing the same challenges they are.
“I definitely look at my peer group, and I visit other schools in that group that are doing well,” said Penn-Jackson, whose school raised its grade from an F to an A.
The education department determines grading with a set formula that is based largely on test score progress, but also incorporates attendance data and the results of a survey of parents, students and teachers.
Now that principals have been receiving progress reports for three years, principals are learning how tweaking small factors in their school can boost their grades.
Cynthia Diaz-Burgos, principal of J.H.S. 189 in Queens, said that the Department of Education provides principals with a tool they can use to see how improvements in test scores or survey results will influence their grade. For example, she said, she can see exactly how many parents need to report satisfaction with the school to raise their score.
“It’s like for the first time you have a playbook for the game,” she said. Diaz-Burgos said that principals have used the tool in previous years, but this year the tool was made available earlier and was more user-friendly.
The progress reports’ greatest utility may be as a motivator, several principals said.
“It’s exciting, and it’s a team-building symbol,” said Diaz-Burgos. “My staff is very competitive and we want to do well.”
Diaz-Burgos defended this year’s high marks against criticisms that the grading system was becoming increasingly useless. “What it means is that our colleagues are working harder and smarter,” she said. “You can’t get comfortable. We’ve learned that any little thing that you mess up on will bring you down to a B or a C.”
For all of the reports’ informational value, several principals and observers pointed out that the most useful data is available to schools long before the progress reports are actually released.
“Any principal that’s surprised by his or her report card grade shouldn’t be on the job,” said Bill Colavito, senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation – Public Education Association, an organization that helps train principals and teachers. Principals’ chief task at this point, he said, is to translate the grades into useful information for their teachers and parents.