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Fewer Schools Labeled Failing in New York

Ohanian Comment: I have no way of knowing, but I wonder how many experts believe these numbers weren't subject to political manipulation.

One out of four New York City public schools failed to meet state proficiency standards last year, but the number fell by 10 percent compared with the year before, the State Education Department said yesterday.

According to the new figures, 328 city schools that receive federal poverty money failed to meet state standards in the 2003-4 school year, down from 366 that had previously been classified as failing. This year, 36 city schools were added to the list, 65 made enough progress to be taken off, and 9 were removed because they either closed or no longer receive federal antipoverty money.

Yesterday's list took many educators by surprise. They had speculated that the list of failing schools would grow over the years because of the increasingly rigorous demands of the law. Some public officials wondered aloud whether the state had changed its formula for calculating schools' scores, but state officials said that only tiny, technical changes had been made, affecting only a handful of schools.

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein celebrated the results, saying they reflected the success of his widespread changes to the school system.

"The nearly two-to-one margin of schools that improved enough to leave the list reflects the hard work of principals, teachers and parents, but it especially reflects student achievement gains that are both genuine and significant," the chancellor said in a statement. "All of our reforms are aimed at giving every New York City public school child a quality education and a better chance in life."

The list was released to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that states keep close tabs on student performance at schools receiving federal antipoverty money, known as Title I schools. According to the law, such schools must be held accountable for their overall scores and for the scores of students in various subgroups. If, for example, special education students or children in one ethnic group failed two years in a row to make adequate yearly progress, the school is labeled as failing.

One of the most significant aspects of the law is that it requires that children be allowed to transfer out of failing schools.

But this summer, the city's Department of Education said it planned to limit the number of transfer seats allowed, probably to less than 1,000 citywide. And Michele Cahill, the school system's senior counselor for education policy, said students would not be allowed to transfer out of failing schools until the end of October, a decision that some public officials are criticizing.

Last year, more than 7,000 children transferred under the law, but the list of transfer schools was based on data from the 2001-2 school year.

The state released its updated list of failing schools, based on 2002-3 data, after the school year started, and the city did not allow children at newly named failing schools to transfer, saying it would have been too disruptive.

Some public officials called upon the city yesterday to start immediately contacting parents whose children are eligible to transfer, instead of waiting until schools open on Sept. 13.

"Now that they have the list, which was always their fake reason for not doing this early, now they need to immediately start processing" transfer applications, said Eva S. Moskowitz, chairwoman of the City Council Education Committee. "As a parent you need to plan. It's complicated logistics. You need to know where your kid is going."

In the four biggest cities after New York - Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Yonkers - a total of 68 schools were labeled failing, down from 77 last year. In those cities, five were new to the list, while nine were removed after they performed well two years in a row, and five because they had closed.

It was impossible to tell yesterday why certain schools were taken off the list and why others were added, because the state did not provide details. Officials said more information would be released next week.

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said she believed the list had shrunk because the state had used relaxed federal standards to decide which schools were failing. Specifically, Ms. Weingarten said she believed that special education children have been counted differently.

"People should be more forthright about the changes that have been made in the calculations that have led to this new data," Ms. Weingarten said. "It's always good news when schools get off the list, and it's always good news when the state and the federal government, regardless of what motivates them to do so, start looking at the data in a more appropriate way."

James A. Kadamus, a deputy commissioner of the State Education Department, said the most significant change was that while schools could not meet adequate yearly progress last year unless 95 percent of children were tested, this year they were required to have tested only an average of 95 percent of children over two years. Only six schools were affected by this change, he said.

"I think everyone was predicting that these lists were going to grow and grow and grow," he said. "I think what it suggests is that when you give people some focus, you make it clear where they're not performing well, and what subgroup is not performing well; it appears to be that people are concentrating their resources to make a difference."

— Elissa Gootman
New York Times


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