Michigan needs a smart, statewide system to measure student growth

[An earlier version contained a summary of this column that was placed below the bylines, inadvertently making it appear as if that summary was written by the authors. The summary was in fact written by Bridge.]

As Michigan education leaders who work in very different sectors, we often see education reform from different points of view. It’s rare for all of our organizations to agree on complex policy changes, but there are times when a public problem and solution make so much common sense, it brings us together.

Michigan’s lack of reliable and accurate student growth data is one of these issues. Our state’s education data infrastructure is among the bottom third in the country, according to Education Week and many national observers.

One of the central problems: Michigan education data do not take into account the vast differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Widespread national research tells us that low-income children come to school with far greater deficits compared to their more affluent middle-class peers. Students living in poverty, on average, start their K-12 academic careers far behind their wealthier peers, even by the time they start first grade. For example, according to Grand Rapids Public Schools, 83 percent of students who begin kindergarten in the district are already one to two years behind in reading.

Yet our K-12 education data system doesn’t take into account these differences nor does it provide reliable student growth data for any district in the state. That needs to change.

In the coming months, there’s an opportunity to do just that. Presently policymakers are debating Michigan’s proposed statewide educator evaluation and support system. One very important tool in this system is a statewide student growth tool that will generate comparable – and far more reliable – student growth data, to be used as one of multiple measures in educator evaluations in Michigan.

If it’s done right, a new growth tool will use data from a new state assessment aligned to college- and career-ready standards, and provide more accurate data on student learning. Done right, this data system will be aligned with Pre-K data systems now being built, as well as a longitudinal K-16 data system that has been in development for a few years.

We support the state’s development and support of this tool. Today, Michigan parents and educators have no idea whether their schools’ teaching quality and classroom learning levels are better than other schools’, or if a district simply set a low bar for quality. That’s because there is now a patchwork of ways in which our state’s school districts and charter operators measure student learning -- and each one is left to define what a year of student growth should be.

Ed Trust-Midwest’s research has found many local student growth models in our state actually underestimate teachers’ impact on student learning. That’s neither sound nor fair to educators and students. That’s why it’s important that the state provides high-caliber, reliable, comparable growth data for all districts to adopt -- and use as at least one measure in their local evaluation systems.

As a state, we also need to make sure this new student growth model is reliable, thoughtful, technically sound and fair to educators and students, including those in high-poverty and working-class communities. In other words, it should be smart.

To reach that goal, the state’s growth model should account for previous student achievement and other variables, such as poverty — and provide a measure of individual teacher effectiveness, averaged over multiple years, for use in educator evaluations.

Why is this so important? Student growth measures that are not such so-called value-added models risk penalizing educators for teaching in high-poverty schools — and may vastly underestimate student growth in urban, rural and even many suburban communities. This makes it even more difficult for such schools to attract and retain effective teachers and school leaders.

We know how fundamentally important teachers are. Research shows the most important in-school predictor of a student’s achievement is teaching quality.

Indeed, we need to support our teachers not only with fair data and evaluations, but with smart data that actually helps them inform their instruction. Such smart growth tools — especially when generated based on a high-caliber assessment— can provide valuable diagnostic information about students.

This tool could be truly transformative for our schools. Educators in leading states not only receive such data on their students’ learning gains, but they also use individual student “projection reports” that signal whether a student is on track to graduate from high school and even how ready he or she is for college and career entrance exams -- as early as elementary school.

Such data would allow Michigan educators to intervene earlier in students’ academic careers, tailor instruction and improve teaching strategies. Most states make student projection reports available to parents upon request, too.

Imagine what parents, teachers and school leaders could do, together, if they knew a fourth-grader is already off track to be college- and career-ready. The potential for helping our students is enormous.

Educators also can use such data to help low achievers who are progressing slowly by providing earlier, targeted intensive support. Educators also can provide more challenging instruction to high-achieving students who are insufficiently challenged in school.

Some might say, “Sounds nice, but wouldn’t such data set lower expectations for low-income or lower-achieving students?”

The answer: Michigan already has a rigorous, high-stakes school accountability system that expects Michigan students to be proficient at the same high levels. And this measure also would be just one measure among multiple measures of performance in any comprehensive educator evaluation and support system.

If properly designed, Michigan’s new student growth data would provide a vastly more accurate way to measure student performance -- and ensure that school professional development, staffing decisions and student placements and interventions are made much more thoughtfully, strategically and smartly.

We need a Michigan smart student growth model. In the coming months, we need to take that opportunity.

Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust – Midwest
Teresa Weatherall Neal is superintendent of the Grand Rapids Public Schools
Audrey Spalding is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Michael Rice is superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools
Ray Telman is executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association
Jon Felske is superintendent of the Muskegon Public Schools
Harrison Blackmond is State Director, Democrats for Education Reform Michigan

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Wed, 12/04/2013 - 4:07pm
And the answer to the biggest criticism this idea will have takes the form of a question: "Racial profiling of school districts? what in the world are you talking about? that possibility never entered our mind." Yeah right.
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 9:00am
I support the new tools described herein. What you are politely describing here is a PreK-12 system currently grounded in a structurally racist and classist system that punishes kids and teachers for attending schools located in poor or minority neighborhoods. Really? Can it be true that the most disadvantaged residents of our state are discriminated against because they are poor or minority? When you compare teacher pay and teacher turnover at poorer or richer schools, it's crystal clear. If you were a teacher, which would you choose? When you compare the rigor and expectations of the SAME COURSES at poorer or richer schools, it's crystal clear (lower expectations and rigor at poorer schools). When you compare the facilities and amenities at poorer or richer schools, it's crystal clear.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 11:34am
A desire to have what never was and never will be. A metric to sort, rank, rate , reward and punish built upon a foundation of a dysfunctional SYSTEM of education. The children, teachers and parents are not the problem. The participants can only perform within the limits imposed upon them by the system, the context within which they act. When you have a system of education based upon 200 year old principles whose goal was the efficient production of individuals prepared to serve the beginnings of the industrial revolution your desire to determine the effectiveness of individual performances within that system is a fool's journey. Once again the tree of education has thousands whacking away at the leaves and few, if any, working on the roots, the source of the disease impeding meaningful growth and change. All an assessment in the form of a metric is going to do is contribute to the workload of consultants and various educational charlatans.
Scott Baker
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 10:37pm
Amen, Mr. Fellows. Well stated.
Mary Greene
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 3:56pm
Wouldn't the money be better spent improving rigor at ALL schools? Why in the world would you want to invest in documenting and defending the gap instead of closing it? The contention that poor children cannot learn has been disproved many times. Poor children can learn in good schools, even when they start far behind. (Although investing in pre-k prep provides good ROI too.) They need good teachers, good books, and sometimes good tutoring. I personally tutored a child from a poor immigrant family through first and second grade. At the beginning of first grade she could speak no English, let along read or write it. At the end of third grade she was reading and writing English far above grade level. I spent 30 minutes with her each week. Her teachers did far more than I did of course. This was in what is considered a poor urban school. I personally sent my children from an affluent suburb to attend a diverse urban school, where many students were from poor families. All children there, from very affluent to very poor, learned and achieved successfully. I think one of the biggest problems in Michigan's public education system is the mindset that some children can learn, and some children just cannot. That's what is called a "fixed mindset," and it is strongly correlated with failure. In education systems that embrace the mindset that ALL children can learn, ALL children do learn. That's what is called a "growth mindset," and it is strongly correlated with success. Michigan's children are the state's richest resource. All deserve the opportunity to learn in rigorous environments with teachers who believe they CAN learn. And all of the state's residents will benefit when that becomes the reality.
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 5:47pm
Research has shown that multiple choice tests can only measure memorization - not if the students understand the material and definitively not if they can apply it to real life problems. Multiple choice tests also measure if the students have been trained in how to take multiple choice tests. So if the smart measuring system is supposed to show if the students can use and apply the material they learned, it cannot be based on multiple choice tests. It should be based on actual writing and presentation of the students.
Thu, 12/05/2013 - 8:42pm
"Michigan education data do not take into account the vast differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Widespread national research tells us that low-income children come to school with far greater deficits compared to their more affluent middle-class peers." They are already establishing a bias in the system. The measures aren't about knowledge and skills achievements for the students, it is about social accommodation. When the students leave K-12 the employers don't ask about what was your social status when you were going to school, they ask what knowledge and skills you have now and how will you be able to contribute to the organization’s success in the future. It seems all we hear about is how we shouldn't expect kids to succeed academically because of their social status, now the new metrics will enshrine that bias and adjust student knowledge and skills scoring to ensure they will not be equally prepared upon graduation. The reality is that people, kids included, work to the expectation establish by them or others for them, the new reporting scheme will build in low expectations for those deemed to have some social inequity. “We know how fundamentally important teachers are.” It is disappointing that the ‘we’ don’t know how fundamentally important the students are. They never seem to grasp the old adage, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.’ This reporting, this new system, this new ‘educational’ whatever is all about what adult can and will do to the kids and never is there anything about what role/responsibilities the kids have nor is it about how and why kids succeed in spite of all the ‘educators’ effort toward their failure. These article authors sure seem to take a lot of pride in this new scheme, too bad their pride seems to get in the way of looking to the most important element of the educational process. THE KIDS!
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 2:51pm
A lot of "if"s in this article. If we focused more on teaching and less on testing, more students would learn more.
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 8:54pm
The use of systematic measurement of progress is helping a rural school in Mississippi improve teacher skills in the classroom and learning outcomes on state assessments. The use of systematic measurement of progress is a significant departure from the typical curriculum-driven instructional model used in many schools, in which teachers are expected to “cover” non-viable curricula and keep up with rigid pacing guides. Teachers at Simpson Central School were taught to collect baseline data on student learning levels during the first six weeks of the school year, and then to update data weekly within two of the domains of the Essential Skills Inventory each week. Rather than racing through content expectations, teachers learned to carefully observe children, systematically update data for the essential skills, and teach responsively at the child’s readiness levels for portions of each day. In 2008-09 Simpson Central School began implementation of the Essential Skill Inventories (Sornson, 2012) for systematic measurement of progress toward a small set of crucial learning outcomes during the K-2 early childhood learning years. Simpson Central is a rural school in Pinola, MS that serves Kindergarten through 8th grade students in the Simpson County School District. The school has approximately 500 students from 20 small surrounding communities. Simpson Central is a Title I school, with 77% of the students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. The student population is 52% Caucasian and 48% African American. Despite significant reform and improvement efforts, most SCS students continued to lag behind state and national standards for proficiency. In 2008-09 testing, on the Mississippi Curriculum Test 2, 70% of third grade students scored at the minimum or basic levels in Language Arts, with only 30% scoring proficient or above. When SCS teachers began using the Essential Skill Inventories (K-2) for systematic measurement of progress, outcomes began to change. By carefully tracking student learning, they could design instruction which meets the needs of students rather than racing through content or lessons. One grade at a time, they transformed the way they teach students. By 2011-12 82% of third grade students were rated Proficient or Above on state testing, and over 90% were reading on grade level on DRA2 testing. Changing outcomes during the first few grades, and ensuring success by the end of third grade, changes learning outcomes for life.
Sun, 12/08/2013 - 9:45pm
Bob, One of the important values, that is commonly overlooked, of well defined metrics is how they communicate what success looks like and gives those being measured a guide to self improvement.
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 8:46am
Absolutely true. The metrics we use in the Essential Skill Inventory provide feedback to teachers, students, and parents. Good systematic measurement of progress provides on-going formative assessment for each of these groups.
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 1:20pm
Bob, Can you send me a link or address where I can go to see the details of these metrics and the protocol for how they are used?
Mon, 12/09/2013 - 6:49am
Thanks for your reporting and including important education issues in the news. But...student growth will improve overall, when we get rid of poverty. You'd be better off measuring how good we are at eliminating poverty. How can some programs in extremely poor areas succeed? Check these out and emulate them. Small class sizes, lots of support in many ways...it can be done, but it's not easy. Living in Michigan, if you are poor, is not easy. If you check the facts (go to Diane Ravitch's blog or just search "poverty in michigan") you'll see that the problem areas where kids aren't succeeding in school are in high poverty situations.