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 new year, a new Detroit school board — and maybe soon a new lawsuit

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.

Now that we’ve started a new year, the new Detroit school board is officially in charge of the state’s largest district. After spending the last two months in intensive orientation workshops, the seven members of the new board will be sworn in during a ceremony at Cass Tech on Wednesday. Then it’s time to get to work. In interviews with Chalkbeat, board members said their top priorities include a national search for a permanent superintendent — and possibly going to court to prevent the state from shuttering low-performing schools.

“I’m a community developer. I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community… I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”

— Sonya Mays, member, new Detroit school board

Read on for more about the new board, the rest of the week’s education news, plus a few headlines that you might have missed over the holiday.


New year, new board


DeVos division

  • The U.S. Senate is scheduled to hold its first hearing next week on the Betsy DeVos nomination for education secretary. It’s one of several controversial hearings that critics say were scheduled for the same day to reduce public scrutiny.
  • DeVos has been the subject of sharp debate since her nomination. The Christian Science Monitor writes that Michigan’s schools story “offers perhaps the best preview of the free-market style education policies that could soon be getting a wider roll-out across America.”
  • In dueling op/eds in the News, a Republican state lawmaker says DeVos will free local schools from burdensome federal and state mandates, while a former Democratic party and Detroit schools spokesman says DeVos is “scary on steroids.”

In other news:


Week In Review: What $617 million can’t buy

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

A massive infusion of cash from Lansing last summer might have given Detroit’s main school district a new lease on life. But it didn’t solve enormous problems like the teacher shortage that has forced the district to end a reading program just as the consequences for struggling to read became more severe.

And while the money helped launch a new Montessori program that has attracted some skeptical families to the district, our story this week notes that ongoing instability in the district has made the program’s future unclear.

“DPS unfortunately is the king of let’s start it, let’s try it for a minute or two, then — oop, no, scrap. But my hope is that with a lot of parent involvement and a lot of community support, we can make sure the program grows and is pushed forward.”

— Yolanda King, Detroit public school teacher and Montessori parent

Read on for more on these stories as well as an update on when struggling Michigan schools could learn if they’ll face closure next year. 

On DeVos, charters and truth

How could philanthropist Betsy DeVos’ past in Michigan predict her future in Washington? That was the question again this week as the country continued to get up to speed on President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary pick.

  • “A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation,” the New York Times concluded after scrutinizing DeVos’ record in Michigan, including her role last spring in blocking an oversight commission that advocates hoped would bring some order to Detroit’s district and charter schools.
  • A columnist suggested DeVos would face an easier confirmation process if she came out in favor of improved oversight and transparency for Michigan charter schools.
  • A Free Press editor blasted DeVos for distorting charter school data to claim the privately run schools are more successful in Detroit than they really are.
  • DeVos got a public defense from state Attorney General (and likely candidate for governor) Bill Schuette — who has received $102,800 in campaign contributions and $20,000 in administrative support from the DeVos family since 2009.
  • Are DeVos’ voucher dreams part of an evangelical Christian mission? One observer who has studied the Christian right thinks so.

In Detroit:

  • A new Montessori program for 150 kids in three Detroit public schools has successfully lured some families that might otherwise have chosen private, charter or suburban schools. But that doesn’t mean the program will survive. No definitive decisions have been made,” a district official said.
  • A teaching shortage has forced DPS to cut its reading intervention program — just as a state law makes the consequences for failing to read more severe. “It’s absolutely absurd and inexplicable,” fumed one Reading Recovery teacher who was reassigned to a regular classroom.
  • Some members of the new Detroit school board spelled out their goals for the coming year.
  • Detroit’s main school district qualifies for so much state and federal funding due to its high number of poor and special needs students that it has one of the highest per-pupil funding levels in the state.
  • A tutor who billed DPS for $684,644 worth of work he never did has pleaded guilty to theft and fraud charges.
  • Detroit high school students learned how to build green infrastructure.
  • Students from suburban school brought holiday gifts to kids at a Detroit charter school.

Across the state:

  • Michigan officials originally said they would identify the state’s lowest-performing — and most at-risk — schools by the end of the year. Now they’ve pushed back their timeline, meaning that anxious Michigan schools will have to wait for the new year to find out if they’re in danger of being shut down.
  • One bill headed to Gov. Rick Snyder could cut down on suspensions and expulsions in Michigan schools. Another would bar schools from using seclusion and restraint to discipline children.
  • Fewer Michigan school districts are broke.
  • The tense environment since election day has triggered complaints of 19 hate or bias incidents in schools.
  • The state appeals court found that a suburban teachers union “took deliberate action” to lock in union dues before the state’s right-to-work legislation took effect.
  • Flint students will get extra help through a $2 million grant to Michigan State University.

From Chalkbeat:

  • Why every online school in Indiana got an F on this year’s state report card.
  • How Colorado schools are helping kids calm down — and learn — through mindfulness.
  • Chronic absenteeism is lower in New York City charter schools than in district schools, report finds,
  • Denver Public Schools wants to give more autonomy to more schools through expanding its “innovation zone” experiment.
  • Why Tennessee’s turnaround district might lose some power.