Will Lansing commit to transparency and high education standards?

Before heading back home for campaigning, lawmakers in Lansing have two great opportunities to make Michigan a much better-governed state -- and in the process, establish a record of achievement for those who will be facing the voters this November.

One has to do with the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The other has to do with changing (yet again) the test used to assess how our children are learning in school.

On FOIA, the House of Representatives has approved a 10-bill package, the first significant revisions to the act in its history. These remove exemptions that have officially allowed (and, in fact, encouraged) the legislature and governor’s office to operate in secret. Happily, only a handful of House members voted to keep the bright light of day away from political shenanigans.

Over the years, lots of weaknesses have surfaced in the Freedom of Information Act, now 40 years old. The biggest is that it contains a blanket exemption for the governor’s office. Michigan is one of only two states that allow governors and their staffs to operate in secret.

Partly because of this, the Center for Public Integrity last year ranked Michigan last among all 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to transparency and ethical conduct in government.

What an embarrassment!

House lawmakers originally proposed FOIA improvements in the wake of the Flint water quality debacle, and after Gov. Snyder’s very carefully dribbled out disclosures of his office’s role in causing -- and then too-long ignoring -- the mess in Flint.

The existing FOIA law doesn’t explicitly exempt the legislature, but a 1986 opinion from the attorney general held that the statute is intended to shield lawmakers from public view while conducting the public’s business. Unless countermanded by the courts, attorneys general’ opinions are held to have the force of law.

Anybody who followed the secretive and embarrassing Todd Courser-Cindy Gamrat mess knows that the disinfecting sunlight of public knowledge might have gone a long way to prevent that infection from getting as bad at it eventually did.

Sadly, I figure sitting state senators, who don’t face the voters this fall, will find clever ways to weasel out of voting on these House-passed FOIA improvements before the legislature adjourns this fall.

I can always hope, but the odds are that cynicism is too often a more realistic expectation when it comes to open government.

Shifting gears to the ways we use to assess how our children are doing in school: The results from last spring’s M-STEP test demonstrated conclusively that Michigan has a long way to go to reach its goal of becoming a top 10 education state.

Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said in a recent column: “the worst thing we could do now would be to throw away the M-STEP assessment because we don’t like the results.”

Two years ago, the Michigan Department of Education, supported by the State Board of Education, adopted the M-STEP instrument after lengthy (and expensive) analysis and evaluation.

The idea was to replace the 44-year-old MEAP test with a better instrument that would provide a good reading on how our students are coping with real-world academic subjects -- and how we stand compared with other states.

Now, the word in Lansing is that some lawmakers, dissatisfied with the recent M-STEP findings, are thinking about changing the test – which would be the third change for students and teachers in four years.

This is silly and likely to cause no end of trouble.

For years, Lansing has spawned politicians who fight rigorous school standards, serious accountability and accurate assessment. To change the test now would mean it will take years before we accumulate meaningful information on how our students are progressing. Moreover, any meaningful comparison of our schools with those in other states would be out the window.

The State Board of Education, which often is torn by the same partisan clashes that affect all elected bodies these days, actually adopted M-STEP on an unusual bipartisan vote before the start of the 2014-15 school year. Undoing that work at this point would be nothing more than an exercise in debasing tough assessment and hindering badly-needed progress in improving our schools.

Let’s hope that in the cases of both freedom of information law and educational testing, the better angels of our nature prevail.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Chuck Fellows
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:03am
The M-Step is a waste of taxpayer funds and school district time and effort. There is no valid basis for these tests. The tests provide a score evaluated as a standalone marker void of any context. Data absent context is meaningless. We do not need a test to tell us that poverty impacts learning. What these tests do is discourage and punish children and teachers to the detriment of learning. That's reality Phil, and supporting this type of testing is a mistake. If you wish to know if a child is learning ask a teacher who, given the opportunity by bureaucrats, can demonstrate learning growth with formative and summative testing, the students actual performances and demonstrations of subject mastery. If we allow children to be responsible for their own learning they will exceed all expectations. For an extended example view the PBS NOVA program "School of the Future" www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/school-of-the-future.html.
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 3:19pm
Let's also hold home schoolers, charter schools and private schools to the same standards as the public schools. All children in the state should have to take any test the legislators deem necessary to show progress and achievement. Let's hold everyone equally accountable.
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 4:31pm
Charter schools are held to the same standards as other public schools in Michigan, including the same requirement for students starting in Grade 3 to take the M-STEP, but face tougher sanction. Automatic closure provisions apply to persistently low-performing charter schools, but not to other public schools with the same track record. Private schools and home schools do not even receive any direct or indirect financial support from state government. How then can you call for mandating they take a state test? A small minority of private schools have chosen to use M-STEP as an assessment tool, but primarily they are responsible to the families who pay tuition.
Chuck Jordan
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 7:31pm
Please explain how the M-Step assesses how our children are doing in school compared to other states. It doesn't do either. There is already an assessment that does - NAEP. The M-step is used to compare districts and schools, not assess student achievement. If individual student scores are used to help individual students and teachers understand what they need to work on and what needs to be taught better, then the assessment would serve some purpose. M-Step does not.
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 10:17pm
Mr. Power makes a fundamental mistake when he says, "Partly because of this, the Center for Public Integrity last year ranked Michigan last among all 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to transparency and ethical conduct in government." A little investigation would reveal that there is little if any correlation between the existence of "good government" laws and regulations and the level of corruption in a state. Thus, ranking states and giving them gold stars for having approved laws and regulations on the books rather than assessing actual levels of corruption is useless. Measuring corruption rather than formal requirements is what is required. The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster occurred because the control board showed that a switch had been thrown. But the appropriate valve was stuck and hadn't closed. The wrong thing was being measured. Similarly, it useless to note that a law is on the books if there is a culture of deep and widespread corruption. And it should be pointed out that all the bureaucrats involved in this tragedy were fully subject to FOIA.
Wed, 09/28/2016 - 3:02pm
Phil, you are right that Michigan needs to set and maintain high academic standards, but dead wrong about the M-STEP exam. Right now the M-STEP is a single-state, poorly standardized exam that claims to be correlated with the Smarter Balanced Assessment test of Common Core State Standards for English and math. Developing it, and the extremely loose validation that is done by Michigan's Department of Ed costs Michigan millions more each year than our membership fees to the SBA Consortium, and provides test results for students in grades 3-8 that are not directly comparable to scores from any other state. This lack of comparability means the M-STEP is unfit for one of the two major purposes of standardized tests. It can't be used to compare Michigan students, teachers, school districts, or the state overall to other states in the nation. At best, Michigan can use the M-STEP to compare our students, teachers, school buildings and school districts to each other, which is setting the bar far too low for this era of intensifying global competition Michigan *does* need students who can meet and exceed the educational standards in CCSS and the 21st Century Science Standards. We *might* need to keep M-STEP for a total of 3 years, but only because of some very badly worded school system accountability legislation. (Public disclosure on how that particularly awful bit of law drafting slipped through what should have been a much closer review would be a welcome change.) As soon as possible, Michigan should select a standardized test that really is standardized, and quit letting the educrats in the Michigan Department of Education buy off senior public school teachers with these "plum" outside jobs developing and scoring an unstandardized set of tests under the guise of "local control".