Opinion | Bill to grade Michigan schools A-to-F is a horrible idea

Casandra Ulbrich is co-president of the Michigan State Board of Education

Jan. 3: Michigan’s A-to-F school ratings on ice until attorney general weighs in
Update: Michigan A-to-F school bill gets passing grade in Senate; on to Gov. Rick Snyder
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking

Some Michigan Legislators are using their final days in office to try to pass a major overhaul of Michigan’s public school accountability system. House Bill 5526, which forces the creation of an A-F grading system for schools, is based on the flawed idea that standardized tests are the most important measure of a child’s success.

The idea behind this misguided proposal is that it provides a “simple” measure of how well a school is educating its students. It does not. Letter grades are actually the culmination of complicated decisions and difficult-to-replicate algorithms and can be easily manipulated. In essence, the state can turn your “A” school into a “D” school overnight, simply by changing the data it prioritizes and updating its formula.

Letter grades based primarily on standardized tests also create a system of accountability that more closely measures factors outside of a school’s control, such as poverty, than those within its control. The state saw this with the use of the “top to bottom” list. It was not a coincidence that a school’s location on that list, which was also related to standardized test scores, was closely aligned with the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Predictably, the same may be true of a letter grade, and usually leads to sanctioning the very schools educating the students with the greatest challenges. 

The State Board of Education does not support a letter grade accountability system.  

Instead, the State Board supports an accountability system that provides robust information for parents and taxpayers, that holds schools accountable for increasing student achievement, and allows for multiple measures of success. That’s why last year the State Board and the Michigan Department of Education created the Parent Dashboard for School Transparency, a complete record of school-level data that includes key performance indicators, as well as additional information, such as student/teacher ratios.

Michigan now has a strong accountability system that is valid, accessible, and transparent. That's why you should encourage your state legislators to vote no on HB 5526. 

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Jim Ross
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 6:01am


Dennis Muchmore
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 1:25pm

For some reason we readily accept that schools assign students A-F grades but they are afraid of having those grades assessed to them...seems pretty hypocritical to me.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 5:54pm

I was about to say the very same thing.

When I hear utter nonsense like this:

"Letter grades are actually the culmination of complicated decisions and difficult-to-replicate algorithms and can be easily manipulated."

Exactly, how did teachers do the very same thing for several decades (and succeeded in educating students who went on to bring America into the industrial age, win two World Wars, win the Space race and gave us the technological age), all before common core utterly destroyed one of the best educational systems on the planet?

Pres. Ulbrich needs to find a better excuse than that.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 9:44pm


It does seem simple doesn’t it? But let’s dig deeper. Why stop there? Do we publicly broadcast the grades of kids? Should we have kids wear their grades on their shirts for all their classmates to see?

How do we as a state support struggling schools? Teachers spend time with struggling students tutoring at the end of the day and providing extra assistance working with them.

Have you considered why most of our “struggling” schools serve low-income children? Those children who need the most support are most likely to have a less experienced teacher in a building with far greater turnover. What’s the incentive for great teachers to work in that environment especially given the pending labor shortage?

Perhaps we should grade courts on recidivism rates? Perhaps we should determine revenue sharing on how responsive police and fire are despite their staffing levels or service areas? Perhaps we should grade universities and colleges on whether students graduate? Perhaps we should grade hospitals on how well they treat Medicaid and Medicare patients before providing reimbursement?

This stuff is much more nuanced.

Every teacher I know with a struggling student pours their heart into helping them succeed. Can we expect the same partnership with the state for our schools who need help?

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 12:21am

I want to agree with you, but I struggle with whether you understand how a student learns and why grades were developed in classroom generations ago.

As was explained to me by a well trained educators, classroom teachers, grades are a means for the teacher to explain to the student how well they are learning the subject and what actions the student is doing right and what they need to improve, even how the need to make the improvements. And as far as putting the grades on their chest, well if you as any student in a classroom they can tell you who is doing well and who isn't and in high school they begin ranking the students by grade point average/scoring, and even at graduation that they publicly tell all the world who got the straight A's.

The idea of grading is use wide and for decades, employers have long had performance rating systems for wage bonuses, for advancement lists [specialized technology knowledge and skills] , for promotional opportunities etc. Those are mostly based on actions and activities the impact the job performance. It is common for organizations to have established performance criteria for evaluation and certification, hospitals measured on documenting protocols and conformance to those protocols, medical knowledge and skills of members in department teams, even to the health [occurrences of infection after surgery or during a stay], etc. This is also true of commercial airlines and their practices/protocols, equipment incidents, maintenance records, pilot training, etc. Even colleges and universities have long had an accreditation process, all having some grading system. So grading public schools is not unusual or even something in uncommon used for public institutions, consider how you municipal water and sewer department have such evaluation programs.

I think your last statement is the most telling, how teachers work with struggling students, maybe we should be shifting the efforts from the schools and the teachers to fixing the students. Where you seem to think it is about being poor, I think if you dig a little deeper it is about the desire to learn that has most influence on students. The reality is that in a 'poor' district the students have less opportunity to see what an education can do for you, while in a 'wealthy' district most students see the impact everyday of advanced learning. I am a glaring example of this my father [8th grade education] talked regularly about the 'engineers' at Ford with a sense of envy so I was encourage to study but my parents didn't know how to learn so I did poorly in school, but my father's words stuck with me. I struggled through college finally learning how to learn, our daughters saw everyday how their parents [both with degrees] succeeded and they were taught how to learn, both daughters succeeded in college [one with an MBA and BA, the other with an engineering BS degree], now the grandkids are following what they saw growing up [the 1st granddaughter has entered a special engineering degrees program and the others are all positioned for colleges of their choosing].
Setting the students up for success is about the students desire to learn, their willingness to sacrifice to learn, their work/studying to learn. That's why this commentary is so sad, especially if it reflects the thinking and conversations at the Board of Education.

What children see speaks so loudly they can't hear what you're saying. We need to help them find a desire in learning, for it will be a lifetime demand, so they can succeed for a lifetime. We need to 'fix' the students and spend much less time worrying about fixing the teachers or the schools.

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 7:58am


That is a thoughtful reply, thank you. Like you referenced in industry and hospitals - schools have accreditation and their teachers need to be certified. There are laws on continuing education and professional development requirements. We have teachers and administrators who are required by law to have researched-based evaluations.

My point about other areas of government is you don’t see Lansing running to label other areas of government.

The state also provides a ton of information on school performance available at mischooldata.org/parentdashboard

Lastly, schools have operated under accountability systems since 2001 when the federal government passed No Child Left Behind.

Have a great day.

Sat, 12/08/2018 - 12:58am

The truly committed develop their own index for performance assessment [rather than be forced by others], finding indexes can be an important too in helping them assess/improve what they find to be effective/important, and after validating it they share it with others.
A former employer not only taught me how to develop such indexing and how effective indexes [when used by those who directly impacting performance] were, we shared them with others [including the agencies regulating our practices].
I did learn that government agencies really didn't understand performance [theirs and those they regulated], they weren't all that interested in measuring performance, and didn't work in an environment that was focused finding means/methods for improving [effectiveness] performance.

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 6:06am


Wed, 12/05/2018 - 7:51pm

Ok .... how about a smiley face or frowney face? Let's face it the education establish wants us to give them money and butt out, after all you are all ignorant hicks and all they care more about your kids than you do!

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 11:23pm

Ms. Ulbrich’s commentary is disappointing for she offers nothing that will lead to changes in student learning performance. She touts the Parent Dashboard, but none of the data on the Dashboard leads anyone understand how to improve student learning.
None of Dashboard data measures what affects the learning process. The data in no way can show how or what works or what needs to change so student learning will improve. The Dashboard only measures what choices a student make no matter if learning or not.
Ms. Ulbrich comments make me wonder how well she understands how students learn, if she realizes that each student has a role and responsibilities in their learning, or does she only see education as adults talking to adults about how adults should be spending other people’s money.
After spending a career using data, both technical and human, truly effective must measure the actions/activities that impact the results you are trying to achieve. None of the data in the Parent Dashboard that Ms. Ulbrich is promoting tracks anything those schools are doing to help students learn. At best they measure what students choose to do.
Ms. Ulbrich would make a more credible case if she were to talk about how students learn and what specifically schools do to help them learn, then describe how to best measure the schools actions to help the students learn.

Ben W. Washburn
Thu, 12/06/2018 - 6:41pm

Highly successful education most of all requires intensive and sustained collaboration between parents, teachers and students over a long period of time. None of the dashboard information addresses a measure of this critical underlying web of mutual relationships.
All that "accountability criteria" do is to encourage and enable exploitation of public despair by administrative jerks and opportunists. Intensive collaboration can not be dictated by top-down means, but it can, when it already exists, be destroyed in the wink of an eye.

Sun, 12/09/2018 - 7:38am

After reading many of the comments in this and other "Bridge" articles, I really want to donate to this "non-partisan news source."

Michigan Observer
Sun, 12/09/2018 - 4:16pm

It is astonishing that Ms. Ulbrich (Co-President of the Michigan State Board of Education no less) is unaware that a school's score can be adjusted for the " percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch." The resulting score is a good measure of that school's quality.

And there are numerous cases of students from bad schools being randomly selected to attend a charter school , and subsequently performing on a par with students from the best schools in the state. Those students who entered the lottery, but were not selected, received a bad education from their unequivocally bad school. It is clearly possible, contrary to Ms. Ulbrich, to determine how good a school is.

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 9:55am

You talk over a 'bad education' and yet you give no description of a 'bad education', that is simply emotional appeal that will change nothing by entrench divides. You should at least describe what you feel constitutes an education and how 'bad' differs from 'good.'

Do you see education as learning or simply has housing classrooms and presenting certain subjects? If you believe that education includes learning than you should include the student's role an responsibilities in what you call 'bad' education. For if a student doesn't pay attention, does not try to learn by studying [completing homework on time and in a proper fashion], does not practice reading and math, does not sacrifice personal time to learning in place of play, does disrupts others learning then no matter what is presented in school the education will fail.

If you doubt the role of the student in their learning then simply look at the academic success distribution in a classroom, it will not be all success or all failure, it will include at both ends and all in between. Everything is the same in for all students in the classroom, the difference in performance is the student. Much influences the student outside the classroom, the most important is the desire of student and unless you try to change that 'bad' education will happen no matter what you do to the classroom. You example of the charters and lottery has been shown for decades by the KIPP schools and others, it is about how the student desire is influence. And not all schools, whether public, charter, or for profit are effective or even try to 'fix' the student as so many want to 'fix' the schools.
If you want to see the learning/education improve in Michigan you need to emphasize the student and their role in learning whenever you talk of education.

A good example of this is the talk of 'poor' and 'wealthy' schools and learning differences, if you look below the media rhetoric you will find that in the 'wealth' students see the impact of an education everyday, they see the lifestyle those with an education have, and they hear about how you must work to achieve both the academic success and the lifestyle success. Can you say that about the 'poor' schools, who do they see with advanced training, do they see about how that advanced training was achieved, do they see how that added 'education' impacts everyday life?

I lived the talk of education but did see how to get that education, how to learn until I was out of public school, our daughters saw everyday the impact of learning, they had the reinforcement of what and how to learn, and now their children have an even better experiences and are having even better success. Unless you focus on the student's role and responsibilities all the other things you want done will fail in changing the results. Ms. Ulbrich exposes much of what is wrong with student learning in Michigan, but as long as we only react to what she is saying nothing will change, the focus [especially in articles we read on education] needs to include what the students role and responsibilities are in the learning. It is disappointing Bridge does recruit a writer that understands learning process and how students succeed.