LANSING - Michigan Superintendent Brian Whiston is backing off a controversial plan to begin assigning letter grades to schools as part of the state's method of holding schools accountable.
The move is in response to public input, said Bill DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, which Whiston oversees.
The department had planned to switch to what's called an A-F grading system. Schools would have received letter grades largely based on how students perform on state exams — 29% on how proficient students are according to the exams, and 34% on how much improvement they show on the exams. The rest would have been based on other factors, such as school quality.
Many education groups pushed the state to reconsider the A-F system. And the State Board of Education, which hired Whiston, plans to act during its meeting Tuesday on a statement opposing the A-F system. The board also plans to meet in closed session to consider Whiston's evaluation.
Instead of an A-F system, Michigan will move toward an accountability system that issues a report card without grades. The public will be provided a dashboard of information on how students performed in a number of categories, but no overall grade or rating.
Test scores are sure to be part of the dashboard. But it could also include information on things such as school safety, graduation rates, college enrollment, after-school programs and absenteeism.
"This is something that's come out of the input he's received," DiSessa said. "The input has been that this is the better system that is fair and understandable."
Said Casandra Ulbrich, D-Rochester Hills, the co-president of the State Board: "The fear is that letter grades are basically based on arbitrary weighting of information."
Ulbrich also said that "We would rather present information that allows people to make decisions based on data they have access to, as opposed to the state telling you what is the most important information to consider."
After learning Whiston was backing away from the letter-grading system, Ulbrich said the board likely will still vote on a statement to oppose it.
"It's important for us to be open and transparent on our thoughts" about the plan, Ulbrich said.
Michigan currently has two accountability systems. One is a top-to-bottom ranking of schools. Those that fall in the bottom 5% are identified for improvement and if they wind up on the bottom for three straight years, they could be subject to closure. The state also has 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.
While education groups will likely laud Whiston's decision to drop the A-F grades, the move was criticized by those who have been strong advocates.
"This is a sad day for students and parents," Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group, said in a statement.
Quisenberry said that without an A-F system, "Michigan will be lacking any sort of meaningful accountability system for schools, and parents and students will be the ones who suffer."
Beth DeShone, advocacy director for the Great Lakes Education Project, which says it supports "quality choices in public education for all Michigan students," said via e-mail that it is surprised by the change given "Whiston ... has long supported an A-F system."
"Given that more than 50% of Michigan's K-12 students are not proficient in math and English language arts, GLEP strongly supports an A-F grading system that predominately measures growth and proficiency of students."
Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, applauded the switch.
"Many of our members have expressed significant concerns about the A-F grading system," Wigent said. "We feel a dashboard will provide parents with more relevant and deeper information to make informed decisions about the schools their sons or daughters attend."
A single grade, Wigent said, "does not give the whole picture. It's just a quick snapshot."
Still, the plan to drop the grading system frustrated Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, who chairs the House Education Reform committee. He said it's similar to the decision by the state to back away from closing chronically failing schools in order to give the schools a chance to improve with the help of the state and other partners.
"We're just schizophrenic and leader-less on education in this state," Kelly said. "Nobody wants to close schools. Nobody wants to have any kind of accountability."
And, he said, it doesn't make sense to have one accountability system for students in Detroit and another for the rest of the state. The Legislature in June passed a $617-million financial rescue package for Detroit Public Schools and embedded in that legislation was a requirement that all public schools in the city — traditional public schools and charter schools — be subject to an A-F grading system.
"The reality is thousands of kids are going to be subjected to lousy schools for the foreseeable future. That's the reality when you back off accountability."
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LoriAHiggins
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