The Michigan Legislature has set aside nine days to pass new laws before the end of the calendar year. Bridge has already outlined some of the issues likely to come up in this so-called lame-duck session or early in the next legislative session that begins in January. Today, we offer deeper looks at three measures that may be addressed before the New Year, starting with possible changes to school performance rankings. The other issues explored today are transportation funding and Electoral College voting.
Backers of this idea want to create a system for grading the performance of schools across the state in a way that makes sense to parents and the public. The federal No Child Left Behind law required states to set goals that would lead to all students being proficient in math and reading by 2014. Hefty mandate. But states were allowed to apply for a waiver from the tough requirements by, among other things, devising a system that would hold schools accountable for their performance ‒ to be approved the state legislature.
Last year, the Michigan Department of Education implemented a color-coded system to rate schools. The Michigan school accountability scorecard designates some schools as green, others as lime, yellow, orange, red and purple to indicate the school’s performance level. Critics say this system has confused parents and educators.
House Bill 5112 would change Michigan’s school accountability system to a more understandable, intuitive A-F grading system in 2016, with the possibility of adding metrics beyond student test scores into the system.
The day after the Michigan Department of Education debuted its color-coded system in summer 2013, the chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto), panned it, saying letter grades would make more sense: “The color system is ambiguous and unclear for those unfamiliar with the ranking formula. The system is not intuitive.”
She sponsored House Bill 5112 last year, which is is tie-barred to House Bill 4154, sponsored by Rep. Ken Yonker (R-Gaines Township), that gets rid of the colors. The bills have not yet been voted on, and since they are tie-barred, they cannot go into effect unless both were enacted into law.
The Michigan Department of Education is standing behind the color-coded system it created and has opposed a switch to the A-F scale. The state school board also has opposed the change. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan and the state school board joined forces against the proposed change and are likely to fight the bill if it comes up for a vote during lame duck.
The Democratically controlled state board of education argues that this education issue should be left to the education department – not lawmakers. (Republicans control both the state House and Senate.) The board said it also is concerned that the bill would mandate “an inflexible accountability system that may not meet future federal requirements and reduces the flexibility needed to develop long-term improvements.”
What we know
The No Child Left Behind law requires that states have an accountability plan that provides state and school ratings or face sanctions. The Obama administration has allowed states to apply for waivers from the tough NCLB requirements starting in 2012 in exchange for states implementing college-and-career-ready expectations for all students and strong accountability measures. In August, Michigan’s waiver was renewed for another year.
Michigan’s current system rates schools in six areas of operations ‒ administration and school organization, curricula, staff, school plant and facilities, school and community relations, and in school improvement plans and student performance in subjects beyond math and reading, such as graduation and dropout rates.
Florida has an A-F grading system similar to what some Michigan legislators are considering.
Researchers at the University of Southern California and North Carolina State University recommended in a report in the journal Educational Researcher last year that states move away from using A-F letter grades to rate schools and cited Michigan's rating system as beneficial ‒ not necessarily for the colors, but because it rates schools on subjects beyond math and reading.
What’s at stake
If the legislature gets rid of the current system, it has to replace it with something new because No Child Left Behind and its waiver require a school accountability system. If a new system is adopted, the Michigan Department of Education will have to have it approved by the feds.
“We'd have to request the U.S. Department of Ed amend Michigan's waiver,” said Martin Ackley, spokesman for MDE.
At the center of the push for an A-F grading system is the issue of transparency ‒ the accountability system is supposed to let the public know how their schools are performing compared with other schools (as well as impose corrective actions for schools that do not meet standards).
A color-coded rating system can be confusing. At the same time, a new A-F scale would mark the third system in Michigan since 2012 – which could in itself confuse the public as well as educators.