A-F grades for schools

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.

At issue

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 politics

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 11/13/2014 - 7:38am
All this handwringing over the state of our schools is just a hopeless morass. There is too much of an "us vs them" mentality between teachers, parents, administrators and politicians, it is just not the kind of atmosphere that is going to lead to teachers really trying to do their best to improve things.
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 9:48am
Gee I don't know...changing from a color scale to letters...sounds complicated. But I'm really glad the Legislature decided to draft this important piece because I've not been sleeping well lately.
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 9:53am
Grading schools like this is probably going to be a morale killer for those not making the good grade and even for those schools that think they should be an A and end up a B. I don't think public embarrassment is going to spur the kind of extra effort that they think it will.
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 1:51pm
***, The weakness in the whole arguement about grading or not grading is the lack of purpose in grading. If those taking a position on either side of the issue would simply articulate what is to be achieved then we might have a chance at a resolution, but all seem to be running from articulating their purpose. When I was in K-12 grading was explained to me as a means for the teacher to determine how well I was learning and would allow the teacher and me, the student, to adjust the learning process to improve my performance. When I began my career my employer explain how programs and processes need to be measured to determine effectiveness and identify how to modify them for better results, evaulation with grading. In both cases it seemed to be program/process accountablity. My employer proved to have a stronger committment to the value of grading and making critical modification (created a culture of regular assessments, identification of success and opportunites for change). I have learned the value of the process of purpose, program, assessment of performance, and actions for improvement, then repeat. I have seen it work most effectively for people driven activities such as training. The foundation of an effective 'grading, assessment, system is having a well defined purpose to develop the assessment process on. You mention math and reading, those would be valuable pieces of the educational purpose. I do believe that local control/responsibility is the best place to focus on. I believe that locally they need assistance, guidance. I would start by establishing a list of the critical knowledge and skills that students should be learning, a brief description of what each element means and then require the local school system to develop the programs designed to address those elements of learning and a local process for self assessment with a public report issued to the community for comment. I also believe that periodically that there should be an external (not local) assessment of the programs and results that would review and verify the local assessment (by peers form other communities) findings and how they addressing the critical elements of learning. This way there is a sharing of knowledge and skills with the flexibility to accommodate the local issues and provide a means for effective local control. It also provides means to overcome the myopia of community and exposure to other perspectives/expeirences address the issues at hand.
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 10:08am
The legislature has "0" credibility with public schools. The Legislature should grade themselves. If they did they would receive an "F".
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 10:11am
Educators have very little idea of what to expect. The rules for testing continue to change. The standards are subject to change at the whims of politics. Then there is very little in service for any change. Bridge posted information on what some of the highest scoring states are doing. Yet, this seems to be ignored too. When are we going to provide consistency for schools?
Al Churchill
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 10:26am
Bob-----Bridge and just about everyone else made an error of omission when comparing Michigan school performance to the performance of only schools in other states. Why nobody studies the school systems of the countries that beat us on international tests, is beyond me. Finland is a good example. After they were released from the tyranny of the Soviet Union, they rebuilt their schools from the bottom up. Guess what! They did it, based upon research that originated in the good ole US. Or Germany! Albert Shanker, the ,now deceased, once President of the American Federation of Teachers, once traveled to Germany to study their school system and came back as one of the first to promote public charter schools. He changed his mind about charters as they were being developed in this country. But the ideas that Shanker brought back from Europe are still around. They should be looked at.
Martha Toth
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 10:22am
As near as I can tell, the only thing that would change is going from a color to a letter, not the criteria used. Those measures reward small and/or homogeneous schools, which do not have significant subgroups to be rated on. The larger and/or more diverse schools do, and a "gap" in test performance in any subject for any subgroup is enough to give the school an automatic failing grade. The scores are confusing already, because almost no schools get "good" colors, but it better feeds the false "failing schools" narrative to just hand out wholesale F's. Few will understand the reason for the grade. As with experience elsewhere with Common Core assessments, if the vast majority are rated as failures, there is something wrong with the rating system.
Al Churchill
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 10:00am
Martha: If your intent is to push large numbers of public schools into charters, it makes perfect sense to permanently have large numbers of failing schools.
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 1:33pm
Al, Why do other schools have to fail simply because there are more schools? Why do parents send their kids to charter schools instead of the traditional public schools? How do charter schools undermine traditional public schools?
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 10:52am
Accountability, compared to what? Common sense is not all that common anymore! Ranking and rating, rewarding and punishing, those on top who are never engaged at the bottom judging the performance of those at the bottom based on criteria created at the top within a system designed and controlled by those at the top. See the disconnect? Those being held accountable (the bottom) have zero input to the system within which they are commanded to work. Those at the bottom have no way of improving the system since they didn't create it nor do they own it. Solution. Those at the top (Legislature, MDE, State Board of Education) shut up and listen to what those at the bottom have to say about the system created by the top and seek recommendations for continual never ending improvement from the bottom. Support the implemetation of those improvements that include a credible answer to the question "How will you know improvment has occurred?". The top will need training in listening and how to support implementation since they lack this knowledge today. The bottom will need an opportunity to test the waters and give the top an opportunity to regain their trust (its been absent for over fifty years - it will take some time). Meanwhile all should let the children learn and support (not direct) them in their efforts since they already know how to learn!
Charles Richards
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 1:16pm
The only good suggestion in this morass is "Support the implementation of those improvements that include a credible answer to the question “How will you know improvement has occurred?". But Mr. Fellows is being inconsistent in making that suggestion because it assumes that the "top" is competent to judge the recommendations of the "bottom"; something he is otherwise at pains to deny. He is asserting that parents, those paying teachers and administrators to educate their children, merely provide resources and trust in the altruism of educators to perform well. There is an extreme lack of evidence to support this approach. It is a recipe for disaster. Such a regime would be quite comfortable for educators, but not productive of a good education. There is currently insufficient accountability. Bridge recently noted the sharp improvement in the Tennessee schools, an improvement that occurred when accountability was substantially strengthened. Those improved standards were sufficiently demanding as to provoke the resignations of 40 to 50 teachers who felt they could not measure up. And there are an additional 20 or so teachers in the process of being fired. It is apparent that Tennessee was wise in not relying on the altruism of the teachers. His statement that: "Meanwhile all should let the children learn and support (not direct) them in their efforts since they already know how to learn!" reflects a philosophy that is sharply at variance with the experience of all competent parents. It may be that children "know how to learn", but do they know how much effort they should devote to learning? Left to their own devices, would children spend enough time and effort in learning when their friends are inviting them out for pizza? Economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti, in their paper "Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parents: The Economics of Parenting Style" say "Few parents wish that their kids blew off homework more often in exchange for some instant pleasure. This conflict can be interpreted as a difference in time preference – parents worry more about the long-term consequences of children’s behavior (such as studying for school) than do the kids themselves." Yet Mr. Fellows says that adults should not "direct" the efforts of children.
Chuck Fellows
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 11:43am
Accountability for what, meeting the expectations of those in control? Accountability demands a binary world view, yes/no, bad/good, reward/punishment which are all characteristics of failed systems of management and are not elements of successful leadership. Current accountability practices, standardized tests, performance review/evaluation systems and hierarchical organizational structures, assignment of numerical value to subjective processes have failed and continue to fail in all contexts they are used, public or private (McGregor, Dewey, Deming, Senge,Scholtes, Shewhart, Chambers). All mammals are born knowing how to learn and have done so for millions of years.There is no "may be" about it. When examples of so called performance improvement in education are cited one should examine carefully the context within which those 'gains' have been achieved.
Jon Blakey
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 12:07pm
Having worked in the schools (both regular public and charter) for 38 years, no simplistic grading system is without problems, especially if you just want to look at the grade and not the data that created it. I believe that is referred to as "fast thinking" by cognitive scientists, and it is the mode preferred by most humans. While it is beneficial for escaping a predator intent on eating us, this way of thinking applied to complex issues, often leads to bad decisions. Another example of using fast thinking as applied to letter grades would be looking at your child's grades without looking at what they did to achieve the grades. My experience over the years has shown that one teacher's "A" was sometimes another teacher's "B". Yet sometimes, the "B" grade could represent significantly more learning on the part of the students. The same can apply to school grading systems and I believe going back to letter grades will cause too many of us to use "fast thinking" regarding the status of our schools instead of looking at what is contributing to the grade, thus making bad decisions about what is needed to improve the grade. I suspect our legislators are just as guilty of this "fast thinking" approach to decision making as the general population since it seems to be built into our genes. Perhaps the use of "color" grades at least generates some curiosity and "slow thinking" to dig deeper to understand them. This could eventually lead to better decisions that will then lead to better schools, or at least more schools that continue to improve faster in our competitive world. I suggest everyone interested in this issue visit the MI School Data website (www.mischooldata.org) and look at the information posted for their school district. There is a wealth of info for anyone willing to take the time (practice "slow thinking") to explore the various pages. You can also see the "color" status grades as well.
Charles Richards
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 2:49pm
It would have been helpful if Chastity Pratt Dawsey had included a brief explanation of the colors and their rationale. And a quick rundown of what the other 49 states use would have been helpful. I took the trouble to go to the Michigan Department of Education's web site, and it appears the color coded accountability system is geared toward education producers rather than education consumers. The system might be valuable for voters who are attempting to assess candidates for their local school board if candidates took meaningful positions on each of the six areas, but I have never seen that happen in Canton's school board elections. But the system is of limited value in helping a parent evaluate a school. The bottom line for parents and voters is how well does the school educate. The issue has been presented in terms of either color codes or letter grades. Why? Can't MDE translate the colors into letter grades for parents and voters and retain the color coded system for their own use?
Thu, 11/13/2014 - 6:55pm
As long as Lansing believes everyone needs to have Chemistry or Physics, and two years of a foreign language to graduate, GOOD LUCK. you people need to spend a little more time learning and less time campaigning and fund raising. R.L. Go spend a few days in the teachers shoes.
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 11:41am
R.L., I agree a little less time campaigning and fund raising, and a little more time learning. Rather then putting time in a teacher's shoes I would say put time in the student's shoes and find out what it takes to learn. Until we start understanding what it takes to learn we will be spending our time on the wrong things. My reality of learning was applying what was being taught. From what I understand I retain about 10% of what I read, 20% of what I hear, and 80% of what I do. So why no learn from the students what the barriers are to doing and learning, and find out from those who succeed how and why they did it. As for chemistry and physics, I have learn how to use chemistry and physics everyday from cooking to to sport to working around the house. To me computer language is a foreign language so I would like to see two years of that taught in schools. With all we do with computers won't that help the kids on a job? I even hear that companies are recruiting kids in their teens for programing jobs. I would like to see more of the everyday survival skills taugth in school. There is so much that kids could learn about what it takes to succeed in life and what it takes to keep a job.
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 12:41am
Al, I had a pretty good idea of what has happened internationally. I worked with 22 districts/schools on TIMSS-R and we did pretty well. But this work was given little credit much less reviewed in the bigger picture. I agree with you that we should look outside U S. However, I believe this is a topic for further discussion in another format. Bob
Sherry A Wells
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 9:19am
HB 5268 proposes that the Dept. of Education send advisor(s) / consultants to a "failing school" to work with the educators, families and community to bring it back to success. HB 5269 proposes that there be a study of other factors: poverty, crime, transportation, child care, illiteracy, etc. that also affects how well a school is doing, presumably for a plan to deal with those factors. THESE MAKE SENSE! Both of these will die on Dec. 18 if not enacted. IF those behind a charter school have a new method of improving education, why don't they promote their leaders to be consultants to a local school rather than to replace it, with all those costs, empty bldgs. or taking the best, newest bldgs. a district paid for away.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 11:28am
"green, others as lime, yellow, orange, red and purple" So how hard can it be to add: A=Green; lime= B; yellow = C; orange = D; red = F; Purple = F- (or whatever). The data do not support that Tennessee schools have made tremendous improvements and teachers have not left because they could not measure up but because they no longer have the freedom to teach.
Mrs A
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 7:03pm
Returning to A-F grading would bring back the essence of the time-honored tradition of "flunking". Somehow, I don't see that word as "purple".
Robert Kleine
Mon, 11/17/2014 - 9:39am
I developed such a rating system 20 years ago when I worked for Public Sector Consultants. The system measured inputs against outputs and gave each district a letter grade. It was not too popular with some school districts, one even threatened to sue us.