More grades?

Lawmaker proposes giving every school in the state A-F grades to stop ‘masking poor performance’

Rep. Tim Kelly speaks on his bill that would give Michigan schools letter grades.

All Michigan schools would receive an annual report card with letter grades in six different categories under new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing on Thursday.

Backers of the proposal say it offers a “middle ground” in a divisive debate over how schools should be evaluated and how those evaluations can be most useful to parents making school choices.

The state superintendent last year dropped plans to assign a single A-F grade to every school, in favor of a “data dashboard” that provides data on school performance factors like how well students do on state tests and graduation rates. But supporters of letter grades say navigating the dashboard makes it too difficult for parents and educators to judge school performance.

Instead of a single letter grade, 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 – to ensure schools cannot test only their highest performing students.

How to measure schools has been a longstanding issue in Michigan. Nationally, letter grades to measure school performance and create accountability became popular in the mid-2000s, but more recently states have questioned whether grades fairly evaluate schools or offer enough details about their performance.

At least 18 states as of last spring used letter grades. Early in discussions last year, state Superintendent Brian Whiston supported such a system, but some education groups were against it. Instead, the state Department of Education created the Parent Dashboard, a tool meant to provide a more nuanced look at school success than letter grades.

The dashboard provides data on school performance factors like how well students do on state tests and graduation rates. But supporters of letter grades say navigating the dashboard makes it too difficult for parents and educators to judge school performance.

Lack of accountability in Michigan schools is one major reason why education in the state is ranked among the worst in the nation, says Rep. Tim Kelly, of Saginaw Township, the Republican who introduced the bill.

“Michigan has made a unique slide nationally in academic achievement over the last decade or so and I’ve been trying to put a finger on why that’s been the case,” he said. “When we’re not accountable, performance wasn’t there.”

He said his bill is a middle ground between a single grade and the state’s dashboard, which he said had “a lot of good information,” but “still masked poor performance.”

The A-F ranking system has been a divisive issue, with some hailing it is a tool to increase transparency and others viewing it as too simplified because it doesn’t necessarily take into account other factors like poverty that would impact student performance.

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

Speakers at the hearing included charter advocate Moneak Parker, the executive director of parent group Detroit Voice for School Choice, who said as a mother, she wanted to more easily understand which schools were best for her child.

“Let’s get away from the confusion,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go through all the logistics of reading all this data – I just want to get straight to the point, so I’m totally in support of the A-F system.”  

After the state education department dropped its letter grade plan last year, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, told the Detroit Free Press in March 2017, “Michigan will be lacking any sort of meaningful accountability system for schools, and parents and students will be the ones who suffer.”

The letter grade legislation, if passed, would add on to the state’s current controversial school law. Currently, schools that perform in the bottom five percent statewide are subject to state intervention, which could include school closure. The state last year threatened to close 38 schools, but backed down in the face of political pressure.

Among criticism of the current law is that the formula behind the rankings has changed, and so have the tests they are based on. Consequently, some schools have dramatically climbed up the rankings while others have fallen.

Changing the law is something the Democratic committee members would like to see happen.

Rep. Adam Zemke, a Democrat representing Ann Arbor, said the current law allows leaders to “arbitrarily make a decision” to shut down low performing schools “that will impact a lot of families and children and won’t actually solve any of the problems going on.”

“If we’re going to identify schools, I want to do so in a way that is not going to continue to engage in that behavior,” he said.

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.