Mid-year progress report

Higher reading scores predicted for Detroit’s third-graders, but superintendent warns ‘a lot can happen’ before final exams

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Halfway through his first school year as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti says the district’s youngest students are moving in the right direction in reading — but he warned not to expect improvements in math this year.

Vitti offered the insight during a meeting Monday of the school board’s academic committee, where he gave one of the first reports from the district about the status of students’ learning since he took the job in May.

Based on the district’s i-Ready testing, which the district is using to check the reading skills of students in kindergarten through third grade, Vitti told board members that he predicted that 17 percent of third-graders would be considered proficient in reading at the end of the school year — though he cautioned that the results are far from final.

“Right now, if all things stay the same based on where students are right now at mid-year, 17 percent of our students should be at or above grade level in third grade,” Vitti said. “Now, this is all preliminary, because a lot can happen between now and the end of the year.”

He said despite the uncertainty, the data does tell the district that things are “moving in the right direction.”

Indeed, just 10 percent of last year’s third-graders scored high enough on last year’s state test, known as M-STEP, to be considered proficient in reading.

But even if this year’s third-graders make the gains that Vitti is predicting, the district will still be far from getting all students to grade level — a goal that becomes high-stakes starting in the 2019-20 school year. That’s when a looming state law will begin requiring the district to hold back third graders who do not meet the state’s reading standards.

According to Vitti’s presentation at the board meeting, the first round of i-Ready scores suggest that most students are on track to learn a year’s worth of new skills this year — and also remain far behind where they should ideally be for their age.

“Our challenge obviously is that the majority of our students are not at grade level, so although a year’s growth is impressive and should be expected, that has not always been the case … and we need to see double or triple that improvement in the years to come,” Vitti told Chalkbeat.

Vitti also cautioned board members not to expect gains for older students or in math this year, emphasizing that little has changed in the way students are being taught. Since he joined the district in May, he has often said that he didn’t have enough time to make significant changes to curriculum or instruction inside classrooms this year but would be implementing major changes starting in September

“If we don’t change the inputs, we won’t change the outputs,” Vitti told the board members. “The inputs are curriculum, training, and understanding the set of standards, so it’s not surprising that we’re staying flat. I’m confident that next school year … we will see an increase in student performance across the district.”

Vitti’s complete presentation, which includes details about how students at individual schools fared this year on i-Ready and other student tracking exams, is below.

Scores of scores

Republican state board member says A-F school letter grades would hurt poor students, but lawmakers aren’t convinced

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Tom McMillin, a member of the state board of education, says A-F school letter grades will give the poorest schools the worst letter grades.

A representative of the state board of education spoke strongly against a House bill to evaluate school performance with an A-F report card, but charter supporters argued it was the best way to hold schools accountable.

In the second day of House testimony for the proposal, Tom McMillin, a Republican on the board who represents Oakland Township, strongly expressed his dismay.

“I can tell you which ones will be tagged D and F,” he said, pointing to a graph of the poorest schools. “The ones down here.”

The bill would give each school six letter grades based on student scores, academic growth, improvements made by English learners, graduation and chronic absenteeism rates, and the number of students who take state tests.

Charter leaders and advocates have expressed support for the A-F letter grades because they believe the system would allow parents to see quickly and easily which public schools, traditional or charters, are best-performing.

“One of our guiding principles is that accountability is critical, but the accountability system in Michigan is foggy at best,” said Jared Burkhart, executive director of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, which supports the bill. “We need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and grade ourselves.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with others viewing it as too simplistic because it doesn’t necessarily take into account factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

The state board had voted against using letter grades last year because they felt grades didn’t show enough detail for parents. The state superintendent, who earlier had supported letter grades, submitted a system that was a dashboard of data. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved the plan at the end of last year. The dashboard was created to comply with federal education law.

Rep. Pamela Hornberger, a Republican representing parts of Macomb, wasn’t swayed by McMillin’s testimony. Leaving children “in failing schools and not providing the information to parents that’s easy and clear and concise is wrong.”

McMillin shot back: “It’s easy and clear because it’s arbitrary and it could be very wrong.”

The new proposal calls for a dual way of analyzing school performance. To help account for factors like poverty, in addition to letter grades, every school would also be labeled: significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average. Schools would be compared with other schools of similar demographics.

Because letter grades do not fully take poverty into account, one of the six grades would be for student growth, a measure that has been used in other states because it has been called a fairer way of comparing a wealthy school to a poor one.

The bill would create a commission to figure out the details behind the A-F letter grades and labels, including deciding what demographic factors they will look at when comparing schools. If the bill is approved in committee and passed by lawmakers in both houses, commission members would be appointed this fall, and they would be tasked with implementing the new systems for the 2019 school year.

grappling with grades

Getting kids to class may be harder than some lawmakers think. A new study casts doubt on how big a role educators can play.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students walk past a "basketball court" that showcases students with best attendance.

Michigan and other states are focusing more on how often students are absent as a factor in determining a school’s performance. But a new study calls into question whether that’s a good idea.

Two Wayne State University researchers, Sarah Lenhoff and Ben Pogodzinski, said in a report published last week, that when it comes to whether a child will get to class, some schools have more influence over attendance than others.   

Among factors that can influence attendance are how much families trust their teachers, whether the kids feel safe, and response to the school’s discipline policy.  

Michigan is one of 36 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure school performance under the federal education law. But the Wayne State study indicates that it is unreliable to use attendance as an mark of quality to compare schools when the effect of these influences can vary so much.

The findings are problematic for policymakers who want to use chronic absenteeism to judge schools, since the researchers found that in some cases, chronic absenteeism was unrelated to how well the schools were run. Students are considered chronically absent if they miss roughly at least two days of class a month, the report says.

But if GOP lawmakers in Lansing get their way, rates of chronic absenteeism will be even more prominent in determining the success of Michigan schools.

A senate committee Thursday heard testimony for an A-F school grading system. Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican representing Saginaw County, sponsored the bill that would give schools six letter grades. One of those grades is for high rates of absenteeism.

“We can’t keep making excuses, it’s transportation or this or that,” Kelly told Chalkbeat. “We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand and acting like it doesn’t matter. And I understand there’s a lot of contributing forces.”

But, “overall, you show me a high absentee rate and I’ll show you poor performance for a school,” he said.

Democrats on the Senate Education Reform Committee like Rep. Adam Zemke and Rep. Stephanie Chang were concerned the bill lacked nuance about similar issues to the ones raised in the report.

The study comes several months after Michigan’s plan to comply with federal education law was approved by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Chronic absenteeism is one of the factors the state will consider when evaluating school performance.