Week in Review: Yet another change to M-STEP as testing stakes mount

The city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a new partnership this week during an event at Gompers Elementary Middle School to provide free eye exams to 5,000 Detroit children and eyeglasses to kids who need them. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).

Education officials are plowing ahead with plans to change the state’s standardized tests, despite concerns that Michigan’s exams have already seen too many changes in recent years.

"We've changed tests so many times in so many years that it seems difficult to me to support something that changes it again — even if it's an improvement."Kathleen Straus, member, Michigan Board of Education

The changes are being considered at a time of when students and their schools are facing unprecedented consequences for poor test scores. Third-graders will have to prove their reading skills to advance to the fourth grade, and schools could face closure if they can’t raise scores.

That makes changing the exams a risky proposition at a risky time. But advocates say a new kind of test could give teachers a better handle on what their students need to learn. Read on for more details, plus the rest of the week’s headlines.

M-STEP it up

State education officials say their proposal for overhauling the state’s testing system wouldn’t eliminate the M-STEP — just limit how many times students take it, to once in elementary school and once in middle school. “Think of it more as a modification,” one state official said.

Students in other years would be given a test at the beginning and at the end of the school year that would give teachers feedback they can use to drive instruction. Those tests would determine students’ ability to solve problems and think critically.

The state schools superintendent argued in an op-ed that the M-STEP has done its job of bringing Michigan out of the paper-and-pencil testing era, but says that the state now needs a new, “more useful, informative and flexible” exam.

Members of the state board of education, who will vote on the plan later this year or early next year, remain skeptical. Business groups have also launched a lobbying campaign calling for the M-STEP to continue for the sake of consistency and accountability.

But some education leaders say they support the changes. Among them: the head of an Upper Peninsula district who writes that while it’s “aggravating” to hear the state is again thinking of changing its testing program, tests that give teachers better information are a “better solution.”

In Detroit

  • The Detroit News spoke with legal experts about the prospect of the federal right-to-literacy lawsuit that was filed last month on behalf of Detroit students. One said the suit’s arguments are a “stretch” and another said the case “could be a landmark.”
  • A Virginia economics professor blasted the suit, saying Detroit students face so many impediments to educational success that poor schools can’t be explained by insufficient funding. “Here’s my prediction,” he wrote. “If the Michigan lawsuit is successful, it will line the pockets of Detroit’s teaching establishment and do absolutely nothing for black academic achievement.”
  • A columnist warns against choosing candidates based on name recognition, since some of the better-known contenders have dubious track records.
  • DPS enrollment is slightly down but stable. While that’s good news for the district, the teachers union warns that this could mean some overcrowded classes.
  • An eastside school is the first in the city to house a new $5 million community center that will provide services to students as well as the surrounding community.
  • A suburban school board treasurer knocked the proposed $480 million school tax on Wayne County’s ballot this fall as a “wealth transfer from western Wayne County, mostly to Detroit Public Schools.”
  • A former DPS emergency manager has a new job helping to “rescue” a Virginia city.
  • This Detroit kindergarten teacher says her school has a serious rat problem.

Across the state:

  • A federal audit found cozy relationships between charter schools and their management companies in Michigan and across the country that created conflicts of interest and opened the door to fraud and waste.
  • Gov. Snyder announced a “statewide listening tour” that will allow the public to meet with members of his 21st Century Education Commission.
  • A schools advocate says that holding teachers and principals accountable for poor performance doesn’t make much sense when the quality of the district offices is the main thing that affects student performance. “If we want to use accountability as a key lever to drive improvement in student outcomes, the system should be designed to primarily hold those who manage schools accountable,” he writes.
  • A western Michigan superintendent says the state’s tough new promotion requirements for third graders will only penalize kids. “The bill contains no substantial provisions for actually raising student reading levels by the end of the third grade, just whips and chains for students who have not yet progressed to this level,” he wrote.
  • School administrators have concerns about a bill that would expand the rights of student journalists in public high schools and universities.
  • A western Michigan school leader says a solution to the crisis undermining Michigan schools is allowing local communities to pay more for local schools. “If there’s a crisis worthy of dramatic response,” he wrote. “It’s more likely to come from parents of children in their neighborhood schools than it is from legislators and lobbyists.”

In other news:

  • A suburban high school student was arrested for threatening to shoot his classmates.
  • Twenty-nine Metro Detroit schools have been recognized as prepared to respond to cardiac emergencies.

More from Chalkbeat:

  • Leaders of a national teachers union “panicked” when they heard a former NYC school boss might join the Clinton campaign.
  • With a new website, Indianapolis inches toward a single application for charter and district schools.


Extra credit

The city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a new partnership this week during an event at Gompers Elementary Middle School to provide free eye exams to 5,000 Detroit children and eyeglasses to kids who need them. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).
The city health department and the Vision To Learn nonprofit announced a new partnership this week during an event at Gompers Elementary Middle School to provide free eye exams to 5,000 Detroit children and eyeglasses to kids who need them. (Photo: Detroit Public Schools Community District).

Week In Review

Week in Review: A reprieve — but difficult conversations — for struggling schools

Supporters of 38 struggling schools are breathing a little easier this week now that threatened state school closures are likely on hold until next year but the schools still face potentially difficult conversations as they try to improve.

“Any school that’s been failing for three, four or five years, we can’t allow it to continue … Obviously what we’re doing is not working.” 

— Brian Whiston, Michigan state superintendent

Read on for more on this evolving story — as well as the rest of the week’s headlines. And don’t forget to buy your tickets to the School Days storytelling event Chalkbeat is hosting next Friday — a week from today — in conjunction with the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers at the Charles H. Wright Museum. We’re expecting an epic night of cocktails and storytelling, designed to both celebrate and elevate the voices of Detroit residents. Tickets are $20 in advance (or $25 at the door). Buy them here. Thanks for reading!

Closings averted (for now)

  • Schools have been offered a chance to avoid closure by entering into partnership agreements with state and local organizations (read the letter the districts received here).
  • State Superintendent Brian Whiston says he still expects 4-6 schools to close but those will be local — not state — decisions.
  • In Detroit, one school that’s likely to close is Durfee Elementary-Middle school, where students will move to nearby Central High School while a local organization turns Durfee into a “community innovation center.”
  • What exactly the partnership agreements will look like isn’t clear, but a spokesman for the superintendent says they’re “a hybrid model developed from Superintendent Whiston’s own experience as a local superintendent, similar initiatives from other states that have shown success, and discussions with education stakeholders in Michigan.”
  • To participate, districts will have to put together a team of partners including community groups, union leaders or parents to come up with research-based solutions for school improvement.
  • Keeping the schools open would preserve tens of millions of dollars that taxpayers and community groups have put into Detroit schools in recent years, expecting they would stay open.
  • One GOP leader said the state is “circumventing the law” by backing down on closures. “Everybody is just giving them some leeway to do this because it’s a popular thing,” he said.
  • The state Education Department has essentially taken over the fate of the 38 schools from the state School Reform Office, which announced the closures in January. One reason is what a GOP lawmaker described as a “clunky rollout” including the decision to send families a two-page letter listing “better” schools that students could attend. The letters sent to Detroit families included schools an hour away from the city that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Across the state  

  • A top lobbyist promoting the Michigan education agenda of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned this week after apologizing for making comments about shaking his wife during legislative testimony last week.
  • A local business leader compares DeVos with Eli Broad — another Michigan-born billionaire philanthropist who invests heavily in education. The two have different approaches to improving schools, he writes, but DeVos “has been far more successful.”
  • The commission, which plans to formally release its recommendations today, reached no consensus on controversial issues like charter schools and the state’s schools-of-choice law but is calling for upwards of $2 billion in spending on expanding teacher training and helping at-risk kids.
  • A Michigan education professor called on the state to use the latest research to update standards for what kids need to know in each grade instead of recycling other states’ old standards.


In Detroit

  • Members of a Detroit charter school’s champion chess team say the secret to their success is “a lot of heart.”
  • A service organization that provides academic and emotional support to students in seven Detroit schools could lose its federal funding.


Week In Review

Week in review: Michigan school closing decisions delayed — but still looming

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Detroiters have to wait a little longer to find out which of 25 targeted city schools will be closed by the state in June. Gov. Rick Snyder announced yesterday that final decisions, which had been expected soon, have now been postponed until May. The state School Reform Office says  those decisions will be largely based on academic concerns but our story this week looks at the tens of millions of dollars that have gone into building and renovating Detroit schools in recent years — money that could be wasted if schools are shuttered.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools. You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? Not only are they going to hurt children but they’re going to hurt all of Detroit.”

— Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO, Life Remodeled

Read on for more on school closings and other education issues. Also, if you haven’t yet purchased your ticket for the March 17 School Days teacher storytelling event hosted by Chalkbeat and the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, get your tickets here. For a preview, watch Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent Erin Einhorn on stage last week telling the story of how and why Chalkbeat got started in Detroit.


On school closings

  • The nation’s top education states typically do not close down schools, preferring to find ways to improve them. But Michigan is plowing ahead with as many as 38 school closings across the state.
  • Those closings will cost money: roughly $100,000 to close buildings and remove equipment plus $50,000 in yearly security costs but state officials haven’t yet decided who will shoulder those expenses.
  • A powerful documentary about school closings highlights the plight of special needs students, including some that are now facing their second school closing in recent years.
  • The state’s Democratic members of Congress urged Gov. Snyder to stop the closings. “We ask that the state not close any schools without consultation and input from the local community,” the members wrote.
  • Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he’s been “encouraged” by conversations between the district and the state. “I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out” he said in his State of the City Address on Tuesday. He’ll fight the state if he has to, he said. “Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”
  • Snyder’s postponement of final decisions until May was cheered by opponents as a sign that the state is rethinking its approach. ”I hope that the delay is a recognition that the way the state was handling school closures was ineffective,” one said.

On Detroit

  • Duggan revealed that, until recently, city high school grads lost jobs because the district took months to produce student transcripts.
  • Nearly 100 teachers in Detroit’s main district got $1,000 bonuses last year for improving student test scores and meeting other criteria.
  • The district is expanding its Montessori program to three more schools including Palmer Park Prep Academy, Vernor Elementary and Chrysler Elementary.
    All 94 district buildings now have safe levels of lead and copper.

Across the state

In other news

  • The troubled website for children with disabilities that became a political symbol during the first weeks since Betsy DeVos became U.S. Education Secretary has been restored.
  • One Detroit high school student says Devos used money and power to create “a lack of resources for Detroit Public Schools, as well as a negative connotation with all Detroit schools.”
  • Another Detroit student is featured in a national magazine tying DeVos to a host of Detroit school problems.
  • DeVos was initially opposed to rolling back protections for transgender students but then defended the changes.
  • Trump’s proposed AmeriCorps cuts would trim .03 percent of the federal budget — but slash support at 11,000 schools.
  • A gun hoax led a suburban school to beef up security.
  • A new report examines how student transportation affects school choice in Detroit and four other cities.
  • Chalkbeat staffers were featured this week on the radio, a global TV network and a local podcast. Check us out!