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Districts Seeing Red Over Michigan’s Color-Coded Accountability System

When the state’s new color-coded School Accountability Scorecard rated Rockford Public Schools red – the lowest ranking – school district parents didn’t understand why. Neither did Superintendent Michael Shibler.

After all, the district had earned straight A’s for seven years running under the state’s previous ranking system, has the state’s only high school requiring students to pass math and reading competency tests to earn a diploma, and all its schools have been named Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence.

“Suddenly, one year you’ve got a problem with this color-coded format,” Shibler said. “I’m thinking, ‘This is ridiculous.’ “

Shibler promptly posted a letter to district parents explaining that while individual schools received passing rankings, the low ratings of student subgroups had colored the whole district red. The letter called the new system “clearly flawed.”

Now that the dust has settled since the rankings were issued, Shibler says Rockford will aggressively address the needs of low-achieving students identified in the scorecard. But he calls it “a lost year for the data as far as measuring teaching and learning is concerned, except for that bottom 30 percent.” 

“Why would they ever do this?” he added. “How would they think a green light or a red light is going to communicate to people how effective a district is doing?”

A lot of other educators are asking the same question.

“It may be an appropriate diagnostic tool for school districts to understand where their gaps exist,” said Brad Biladeau of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “But no way will it help parents make better choices for their students.”

Confusing Colors

The Michigan School Accountability Scorecard is confusing and doesn’t accurately reflect student or district performance, Biladeau and other critics say. However, they acknowledge it has helped districts pinpoint students who need help.

The scorecards were widely criticized when the Michigan Department of Education released them in late August. They replaced the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) report cards required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Michigan received a federal waiver to develop an alternative reporting system allowing for gradual improvements until 2021-22.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan called the scorecard “a meaningful diagnostic tool” and “an easy way to identify strengths and weakness.” But school administrators found it badly misleading as far as academic achievement, and hopelessly confusing for parents.

Of the 873 districts that received scorecards, only 4.5 percent received a green rating, according to Biladeau. None were lime, the second-highest ranking; 65.9 percent were yellow; 8.9 percent orange; and 20.7 percent red.

The five-color rankings made many administrators see red. Districts that were among the state’s top 5 percent, according to its separate “top-to-bottom” rankings, found themselves tagged a middling yellow.

Conversely, districts rated green were mostly one-room or island schools, in operation for only a year or which reported no data at all, Biladeau said. Many had subpar proficiency scores, he added.

“There is no correlation whatsoever between a green school district and proficiency as it occurs on the (scorecard),” Biladeau said.

Color Kent ISD Schools Yellow

The main factors skewing scores in otherwise high-performing districts are the low ratings of student subgroups — particularly the bottom 30 percent in academic performance.

The subgroup scores put Rockford into an overall red rating, despite green ratings in all academic areas and graduation rate for its entire student body. The bottom 30 percent had the most red categories for academic performance and test participation.

Three other Kent ISD districts also were rated red overall: Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Thornapple-Kellogg. The larger the district, the more student subgroups and more possible red categories, officials noted.

“It’s a very low tolerance for red that’s throwing (overall rankings) off,” said William Smith, Kent ISD assistant superintendent for instructional services.

Aside from Comstock Park’s orange, all other Kent ISD districts were rated yellow. Smith said this “made it difficult to differentiate between districts as to what the areas of improvement could be.”

In Godwin Heights, a low-income and high-minority district, the yellow ranking seemed a snub after being named the state’s second-best “value-added” district earlier this year. The ranking by Bridge Magazine linked student test scores to family income.

Worse, the high school automatically was rated red because it was in the bottom 5 percent on the separate top-to-bottom list.

“It was a bitter pill to swallow, for me especially,” said Superintendent William Fetterhoff. “We know there’s a necessity for improvement for our students. But there can be some real misconceptions about how it’s presented by the state.”

Colors Versus Grades

Godwin principals found their schools’ rankings hard to understand and of minimal use. North Godwin Elementary was ranked yellow yet was rated among the state’s upper 5 percent in top-to-bottom rankings.

“It’s almost impossible to figure out how you got where you are,” Principal Mary Lang said.

A state education official concedes the scorecard has confused many but insists others have welcomed it.

“There’s a lot of people that are pleased with it” compared to the previous system, said Matt Gleason, accountability analyst for the Michigan Department of Education.

Many schools that have complained scored low on compliance factors, such as filing required reports, and categories such as test participation, Gleason said. He acknowledged the weight given to the bottom 30 percent has been “one of the more voiced concerns,” but said it reflects insufficient improvement nationwide in that and other subgroups.

As for the color rankings, Gleason said “a very large camp” favored them over letter grades in public comments during scorecard development. He added, “If you have a system that isn’t based purely on performance, do you really want a letter grade associated with that?”

Rockford’s Shibler said he would be fine with a return to letter grades, which some legislators have proposed, and Fetterhoff said he will push for revisions. While the window for appeals has closed, Gleason said, “the department is open to possible changes to the scorecard system.”

Using Red to Improve

In the meantime, some districts are taking their red rankings to heart and to the classroom.

Breaking out statistics for the bottom 30 percent has enabled districts to zero in on a group it could not easily identify before, said Douglas VanderJagt, assistant superintendent of human resources for Rockford Public Schools.

“It has allowed us to focus on a population the state would not provide us data for in the past,” VanderJagt said. “Now we know exactly who is in our bottom 30.”

Armed with that new data, VanderJagt has reviewed the scorecard results with all principals and teachers, drilling down to the bottom 30 percent in every class and identifying particular weaknesses. The district is exploring new strategies and enhancing existing programs, such as a middle school program providing an hour of extra support per week for students with academic or other needs.

While insisting the scorecard rankings do not define Rockford’s quality as a school district, officials say they’ll use the results to make it even better.

“It’s our responsibility to do everything we can” for low-performing students, Shibler said. “If we’re not addressing their needs, we’re going to.”


School Accountability Scorecards for Kent County

Michigan Department of Education guide to Scorecards

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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