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James Merriman

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The Case for Closing Schools

Posted: 10/18/10 01:52 PM ET

This year, there are a number of New York City public schools--both traditional and charter--that the district will need to shut down.

It's a safe bet that the issues plaguing New York State's standardized tests will be used by some to call for a moratorium on school closings. However, the very real challenges with the tests do not excuse the consistently poor performance at some of the city's schools. In fact, they make those shortcomings even more obvious.

As detailed in a recent New York Times article, the state tests have become more and more predictable in recent years, allowing educators to narrow what was taught in order to maximize the number of students hitting proficiency benchmarks. Test scores rose dramatically over this period, but it turns out student mastery in math and English Language Arts did not rise nearly so quickly.

This summer, the New York Board of Regents popped that test score bubble when they raised the bar to pass the state tests. As a result, nearly every school in the city and state saw its scores go down.

The across-the-board decline was a sobering moment for New York's education community, and it made clear that we still have much work to do before we provide every student in this state with an excellent education. Yet while some have used the drop in scores to question every education reform initiative from the past decade, the tests should not be leveraged as an excuse to keep failing public schools open.

The fact is, if a school couldn't bring students to proficiency on predictable exams testing a narrow set of skills, it's unlikely they'll have any more success under more rigorous standards. And frankly, it would be a disservice to the students in these schools to wait and find out.

Take the case of New Covenant Charter School in Albany, which was closed this year by its authorizer, SUNY, for continual poor performance.

The second oldest charter school in New York, New Covenant had struggled for years to meet proficiency benchmarks. While it had made some moderate gains in recent years, it was still short in several areas when it came up from renewal this past winter, most notably its English Language Arts passing rate. New Covenant's goal was to have 75 percent of students passing the test; only 67 percent had reached that bar.

While the school mounted an aggressive defense at its renewal hearing for why it should remain open, citing the relatively high rate of proficiency--and put tremendous political and public pressure on SUNY--the authorizer ultimately decided that New Covenant had not lived up to its promise to provide every student with a high-quality education and voted to close the school.

SUNY's decision was a tough one, but it was the right one, it turned out. With the higher bar, only 30 percent of New Covenant's students passed the state ELA exam this year.

Just as it would not have been fair to students to allow New Covenant to continue to operate, it isn't right to allow other failing schools across the city to continue to enroll students if they cannot provide them with a high-quality education.

Quality is the key, and whether it is a traditional school or a charter school, we need to ensure that every one of our public schools is providing a great education to its students. And when there are schools that do not deliver--and there are several traditional and charter schools that clearly are not right now--they need to be replaced.

None of this will be easy, nor should it. Closing schools is serious business, affecting students, parents and faculty. Both the City's education department, which oversees district schools and some charter schools, and the State's charter school authorizers, have to be able to muster strong cases for closure and schools should have an opportunity to mount a defense (though one predicated on facts, not yelling and name-calling). But the testing controversy does not excuse the historically poor performance at some schools that neither better assessments nor standards is going to reverse.