Michigan's schools have been on a well-documented academic slide in recent years. Yet, under a proposed new accountability system that would assign letter grades to schools based on performance, more than half the schools are expected to earn A's and B's.
The plan is outlined in the state's comprehensive 150-page plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that governs K-12 education in the nation. The plan details how the Michigan Department of Education will work to improve public schools in the state.
The grading plan concerns some who say giving good grades to a majority of schools ignores overall lackluster academic achievement in the state.
But officials from the Michigan Department of Education defend the expected distribution of grades, saying schools will be evaluated on more than just test scores and saying the grades will allow the department to target the schools that most need improvement.
Michigan students have struggled on the state's tough exam, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress. In most subjects and grades, fewer than 50% of the students were proficient in English language arts, math, science and social studies.
Meanwhile, while other states have made substantial improvement on a rigorous national exam. Michigan student performance is flat and declining and leading to dire predictions for the future.
"It gives a message that everything is OK," said Sunil Joy, assistant director of policy and research at the Education Trust-Midwest, an education research and advocacy organization, which criticized the grading plan — calling it dishonest — in an analysis released Wednesday.
Bill Schmidt, the director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said it could send the wrong signal, noting that Michigan also received an F for student proficiency from the Education Week publication in December.
"If half or more of our schools were A's and B's, why do we come out so poorly on those kinds of ratings?" Schmidt said. "You don’t want to beat the schools to death, but I think it's inconsistent with every other piece of data we have."
The Michigan Department of Education is seeking public comment on the report until 5 p.m. March 16. The overall plan addresses more than just how to hold schools accountable. It outlines plans to change the testing system in Michigan as well as its plans to provide help to struggling schools.
Venessa Keesler, a deputy superintendent at the MDE, said she has heard from people who say the system would generate too many A's and B's. But she also has heard from people who say it will generate too many D's and F's. Under the proposal, the MDE predicts 23% of schools would receive an A, 29% would receive a B, 22% a C, 13% a D and 14% an F.
Much of the grade would be determined based on student performance on state exams — 29% on how proficient students are and 34% on how much improvement students show. The rest is based on other factors, including school quality. As part of school quality, the state would evaluate schools based on the amount of time students spend in fine arts, music and physical education; teacher and school administrator experience, chronic absenteeism among students and for high schools, the number of students who take and pass advanced coursework.
Keesler said she thinks the distribution of grades is fine.
"It's an interesting question — what number is the right number to see in there," Keesler said. But the department didn't build the system so it would have a certain number of schools fall into either category, she said.
And Keesler said that if the department had "built a system that evaluated every school as an F school," then it would be unable to provide assistance to the schools that are most in need. The department's overall plan includes a comprehensive effort to work with school districts that have F schools in order to boost achievement.
Schools currently are rated two ways: through a top-to-bottom ranking of schools, and through a color-coded accountability system that assigns a color — with green being the best and red being the worst — to schools based largely on test performance.
Chris Wigent, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said his organization doesn't support a letter grading system, because it puts too much weight on a single grade. But he doesn't share the concerns about the distribution of the grades.
Instead, he said the association is hoping the department provides other options for an accountability system.
Keesler said the department is indeed looking at two other options. One would give schools letter grades in areas such as proficiency and school quality, but wouldn't provide an overall grade. Another option would provide a host of information, but without any kind of an overall rating.
She noted that there are conversations happening in the Michigan Legislature now about changing the state's accountability system. While the MDE can move forward on its own, she said the department wants to be on the same page as the governor and the Legislature.
The bottom line, Keesler said, is that the state's accountability system will be a key part of meeting state Superintendent Brian Whiston's goal that Michigan be a top 10 performing state in the next 10 years.
"We can't be a top 10 state unless something very different happens in terms of achievement, particularly for our lowest performing schools and district," Keesler said. "We have many schools and districts where the performance ... is very, very low."
Key to the overall plan, Keesler said, is a focus not just on the core subjects, but to all aspects of learning, including the fine arts. She describes it as a "holistic" approach.
"If you're a parent ... you are very concerned with the grades and test scores," Keesler said. But parents are also concerned about making sure their kids aren't bullied, have access to quality teachers, have access to physical education, art and music, and enjoy school.
"We've worked to make sure all those things we know are important," are part of the plan.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR PUBLIC INPUT
The public comment period to weigh in on the state's plan to comply with the federal education law runs through 5 p.m. March 16. For information, including to read to the plan, go to www.michigan.gov/essa.