Sunday, November 22, 2009

Schools’ Grades Reflect Persistent Disparity

Published: November 17, 2009

Over the last three years, high schools that received the lowest marks from the city have been the ones with the highest percentages of poor, black and Hispanic students, despite an evaluation system that was meant to equalize differences among student bodies, according to an analysis by The New York Times of school grades released this week.

Blacks and Hispanics make up on average 77 percent of the student population in the 139 schools that received A’s this past year, compared with more than 90 percent of the schools that received C’s or worse. While the vast majority of A schools have a high minority enrollment, 14 of the 15 largest high-performing schools in the city have drastically lower black and Hispanic enrollment.

As a result, black and Hispanic students over all are more likely to attend a school that scored lower under the city’s grading system: 34 percent of black and Hispanic students attend a high school that received a C or worse, compared with 15 percent of whites and Asians.

The analysis found a similar grade distribution in 2007 and 2008.

Philip Vaccaro, who helped design the progress reports as a member of the Department of Education’s accountability office, said grades were designed to be as “demographically neutral” as possible. To keep schools with a predominance of lower-achieving students from being measured only against those with a predominance of high-performers, schools are compared with those whose students scored similarly on eighth-grade standardized tests.

The lower grades reflect the fact that graduation rates are lower for blacks, Latinos, special education students and those still learning English. Schools with more special education students and those who are overage when they enter high school also did poorly, even though the grading system accounts for those differences as well.

“The way we have tried to deal with the issue is by building an incentive to help these students graduate,” Mr. Vaccaro said. “Over time we hope these will have an impact and that schools will redouble their efforts to help students because there’s a large payoff for them. These are really graduation outcomes and to change that we know that is going to take some time.”

While the majority of A schools do have a significant population of black and Hispanic students, those schools are relatively small.

Several of the city’s largest high schools that have struggled for years received low grades on the progress reports, and those schools have a high population of black and Latino students, as well as special education students and English language learners.

One high school principal in Queens, who declined to be named for fear of punishment, said that the school had received more needy students in recent years and that it was difficult to help them catch up.

“I don’t disagree with holding us to a higher bar, but not all schools are being asked to do the same thing,” the principal said.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein has closed a number of poor-performing large high schools and replaced them with smaller schools, often several in one building. A report this year by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School asserted that the push for smaller schools put more strain on the remaining larger schools.

“One of the effects of opening up so many new small schools was that the remaining large schools became ever more burdened with the students least able to navigate the system,” said Clara Hemphill, who wrote the report. “Once a school goes into a downward spiral, it is very hard to come out of it, and adding a couple of high-needs students certainly doesn’t help.”

Norman Thomas High School in Murray Hill, Manhattan, a school of more than 2,000 students, 96 percent of them black or Hispanic, received a D for the third year in a row.

“We deserved a better grade,” said one student, Christian Rodriguez, 15, from the Bronx. “Everything is changing; everything is changing slowly. The environment is getting better for the students to learn. They’re cracking down on lateness, cutting classes.”

Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.

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