State’s new letter-grade system for schools gets mixed reviews

Too much test data and unfair comparisons, leaders say

An A to F school grading system is now law in Michigan. But for many schools — like many students’ report cards — grades could be a mixed bag.

In the last hours of lame duck legislature last month, Governor Rick Snyder signed House Bill 5526, passed by the Michigan Senate, 21-17 and the House of Representatives, 56-53. It requires the state Department of Education to assign grades to public schools no later than Sept. 1.

Educators have objected to the bill, including interim state Superintendent Sheila Alles, who is seeking a legal review of the grading system. In an interview with Michigan Radio, she said she has concerns the system does not comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. By establishing separate state and federal accountability systems, “It will be confusing, exasperating and frustrating for superintendents,” said Alles, who is asking for a legal review.

New legislation means Michigan schools will receive grades in several categories, but no overall grade

While the bill will not assign a single, overall grade to schools, it will give separate letter grades in the following categories: proficiency in math and English; growth in proficiency in math and English; graduation rates; and academic performance compared to similar schools.

The bill was sponsored by former State Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw), who served as Education Reform Committee chair and was unable to run for re-election because of term limits.

Kelly has said the bill provides a good tool for parents to gauge school performance. Some local superintendents, however, say it puts too much emphasis on test scores and will compare districts in unfair ways.

“The system is set up for winners and losers,” said Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Kent County’s highest-poverty district. “All districts should be set up for success, regardless of the comparison group.”

Alternatives Being Developed

Meanwhile, Launch Michigan, a partnership of business, education, labor, philanthropy, civic leaders and parents, continues to discuss accountability measures and could make its own recommendations, said Chris Glass, director of legislative affairs for West Michigan Talent Triangle, a consortium of area districts.

That’s a major reason the Talent Triangle opposed the bill, though the group supported some of its concepts early on.

“(Launch Michigan’s work) replicates what other states like Massachusetts have done in order to come together from a broad stakeholder group and say, ‘Here’s what we need to do to improve,’” Glass said. “A key component of that is school accountability.

‘The system is set up for winners and losers.’ -- Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston
‘The system is set up for winners and losers.’ — Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston

What Does A to F Do?

The A to F bill follows years of discussion about implementing an effective school accountability system.

“It will be the third accountability system in four years,” Glass said. “By and large these accountability systems have not accomplished their main goals and objectives.”

The outcome of that list was mostly predictable because achievement closely correlates with students’ socio-economic status. “If you served poor children, chances are you would be in the bottom tier,” Glass said.

In 2013, the state began using a color-coded accountability system, which rated schools from green to red. That was replaced by the top-to-bottom ranking, which identified schools in the top 5 percent as “reward” schools. The worst-performing, in the bottom 5 percent, were “priority” schools. Those with a sizable achievement gap between high-performing and low-performing students were “focus” schools.

The top-to-bottom ranking was replaced last year with a different index system ranking schools from 0-100.

The new A to F grading system will be included with the Parent Dashboard and the index system. Those tools comply with the federal Every Child Succeeds Act.

‘It will not give a realistic picture at all for somebody shopping for a school district.’ -- Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler
‘It will not give a realistic picture at all for somebody shopping for a school district.’ — Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler

Too Much Rides on Tests

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston said school leaders support accountability, but not the systems that have been used.

“A primary focus of the accountability systems has been standardized test data,” Polston said. “The two biggest predictors of student achievement on standardized tests is race and poverty. … So as long as that’s the case, I can’t support using that.”

Also, without equitable resources for schools, a standard mechanism for evaluating them won’t work, he said.

Godfrey-Lee has a student population that is 50 percent English-language learners. Until they have the needed language skills, they will perform lower on standardized-tests, Polston said. “You won’t find a district like ours with our demographics.

A positive of the new bill, Glass said, is repealing reform measures that required priority schools to adopt an improvement plan. The system included options for replacing the principal and at least half the staff and implementing new teaching methods, or being placed under state control.

The new law also simplifies math for measuring proficiency, focusing on students as a whole, rather than with separate targets for subgroups. “If 73 percent of students obtained proficiency on the tests then the school has 73 percent proficiency,” Glass said, calling it “more fair and equitable.”

‘It will be the third accountability system in four years. By and large these accountability systems have not accomplished their main goals and objectives.’ — Chris Glass, West Michigan Talent Triangle director of legislative affairs

Similar-school Comparisons: Fair or Not?

Grading schools in comparison to other districts with like demographics is also fairer than past practices, Glass said. “It no longer is going to be stacked against schools that serve predominantly poor children and higher economically disadvantaged children percentages.”

Polston, however, opposes the similar-school comparison. He said an accountability system shouldn’t be based on setting a bar.

“If we are doing well, someone else isn’t,” he said. “I don’t think a school accountability system should set schools up to fail. School accountability should be set up so all schools can achieve at high levels.”

Such a system disproportionally hurts urban, lower-income communities, he added.

“When you grade schools, you are grading communities and when you grade communities, it’s internalized into that community and reflects how they feel about who they are.”

Michael Shibler, superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, also opposes how the system will compare districts. He said they will be grouped by student population and community type, such as suburban or rural.

This would lump Rockford with much wealthier districts such as Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe, which he said get at least $5,000 more per student than Rockford does. Based on Rockford’s 8,000 students, that adds up to about $40 million more per year, he said.

“That is not fair,” argued Shibler, who has lobbied lawmakers to change the groupings. “Because that $40 million will pay for a number of programs that can help students who are struggling in any of those districts, and provide opportunities for them to possibly perform higher on tests. That’s just not right.”

Districts should also be assessed based on many more factors than just test scores, Shibler added, such as early college programs, choice of classes available, and remedial, music and fine arts programs. And they should measure test scores over time, not just one test taken in the spring, he said.

Without such adjustments, Shibler said, “I’m afraid we’ll struggle to be identified as something average or above. … It will not give a realistic picture at all for somebody shopping for a school district. It won’t be accurate, and it won’t be fair.”

Charles Honey contributed to this report

CONNECT

Bridge Magazine – Michigan A-to-F school bill gets passing grade in Senate; on to Gov. Rick Snyder

For most students, achievement reflects income

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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