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.