Every school in Detroit will soon receive a letter grade that could result in some persistently low-scoring schools being shuttered by the state.

Starting this fall, a new mayoral commission will begin hammering out the specifics of a state-mandated school grading system that could result in some schools getting As and many more getting Ds and Fs.  

Though some state lawmakers have been pushing for an A-F grading system that would apply to every school in the state, this report card will bring another wave of high-stakes scrutiny only to the city of Detroit, where education leaders already face considerable pressure to improve test scores.

That’s because the grading system — and the potential consequences of low grades — were among the strings attached to a $617 million state aid package that helped Detroit’s main district avoid bankruptcy in 2016.  It was one aspect of a comprehensive deal that drew the ire of Democratic lawmakers and Detroiters who universally opposed the new law in a tearful, late-night vote.

The law calls for Detroit schools that get multiple Fs to be closed. That means decisions about how much weight to give to attendance versus graduation rates, for example, could have far-reaching consequences for families in Detroit.

The law specifies that 80 percent of a school’s grade must be based on test scores. It calls for the state’s school reform chief to develop the grades, but the task is being delegated to Mayor Mike Duggan’s Community Education Commission, which includes representatives of Detroit’s main district, charter schools, and the Michigan Department of Education.

The potential consequences of the grading system weigh heavily on commission chair Monique Marks.

“I can’t say I haven’t lost a couple of nights’ sleep,” Marks, who is also the CEO of the nonprofit Franklin Wright Settlements, told Chalkbeat last week.

But Marks says the commission’s role in creating the report cards gives Detroiters a measure of control over school grades that would otherwise be produced by state officials. In a written statement, she also pointed out that the lowest-performing schools will have three years to improve before facing closure by the state for low grades.

“Detroit’s schools will be rated by Detroiters,” Marks said in the statement. “We are in the early stages of building a common rating system that will help us determine the performance of our schools and identify opportunities for our schools to improve and grow. We will ensure everyone’s voice is heard as we develop a transparent process.”

Efforts by state leaders to close low-performing schools are not new. More than a quarter of Detroit schools are are already in danger of being shuttered because of the same law, which called for the state to use its top-to-bottom ranking system to shut down persistently low performing schools until a letter grade system could be created. That led the state to list 38 schools — including 25 in the city — for closure last year. Those schools, as well as 30 others that were later added to the list, were eventually given three years to improve, but the consequences for falling short remain unclear.

Grades for Detroit schools will come on top of Michigan’s existing school rating system, which already ranks every school in the state based on six factors that are rolled into a 0-100 point scale.

Advocates for school grading systems say public scrutiny pushes schools to improve and helps parents make smart decisions about where to send their children, but critics say most grading systems oversimplify the complex work of educating children. Test scores are highly correlated with economic factors so schools that enroll affluent children tend to have higher scores.

In Detroit, where more than half of children come from families that live in poverty, schools have routinely posted the lowest test scores in the state.

Education activist Helen Moore said the grades will only remind the world that many Detroit schools are struggling, and that any resulting closures would make matters worse. She said the policy has racial overtones, pointing out that American schools are more likely to be shut down if they serve more students of color.

“They’re going to grade the schools knowing what the grade was already, knowing it’s a trap,” she said. “We need more time” to improve schools in Detroit.

For years, the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit, which has now dissolved, graded every school in the city, but those grades didn’t come with consequences like closure. They were mainly designed to help parents choose schools. The citywide report did not paint a pretty picture: Just a fraction of the 145 schools that were graded in 2017 received a C+ or better, with the vast majority getting Ds or Fs.

The grades will have teeth this time around, but the commission will have some leeway to decide what the grades will be based on.

While the law specifies that test scores must account for 80 percent of each school’s score, it is up to Marks and the commission to decide, for instance, how much of the 80 percent is based on the percentage of students in a school who pass the state exam versus whether student scores improve from one year to the next.

The commission also must decide what should go into the remaining 20 percent of each grade. That could be attendance or graduation rates or the results of parent and teacher surveys.

For many schools, those factors could make the difference between a D and an F. Schools — both charter and district — could be closed by the state if they receive an F for three years in a row, with the law specifying that the state can only allow a school to remain open if closing it would pose an “unreasonable hardship” on students.

School closings have been shown to benefit students only if they wind up attending a better school instead — an especially tall order in Detroit’s school deserts.

Marks said the process will be “extremely delicate,” with the future of struggling schools hanging in the balance.

The commission includes Ralph Bland, who manages a network of six Detroit charter schools, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the city’s main district, and representatives of the state, the teachers union, and nonprofits.

The public will also be able to weigh in at monthly public meetings held by the commission. Since holding its first meeting this summer, the group established a school bus route in northwest Detroit and published a guide to the city’s schools.

The new school guide does not include any information about school quality or test scores but Marks said future editions will have that information and will include letter grades when they’re finalized before the 2019-2020 school year.

The commission will begin discussing the scoring process this fall after receiving recommendations from John Barker, a consultant who formerly worked as Chief of Accountability for Chicago’s public school district and who will continue to advise the commission throughout the next year, Marks said. Barker declined to comment, referring questions to Marks.

The commission’s next meeting is Monday, August 20 at 11 a.m. at the Northwest Activities Center.

Update: Aug. 11, 2018: This story has been updated to include an additional statement from Monique Marks, chair of the Community Education Commission, emphasizing that Detroiters will have a say in the creation of a state-mandated school grading system.