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Gridlocked on change, state may bring back reviled MEAP next fall

R.J. Webber feels a little like an expectant father, except he’s been waiting for this baby for almost three years.

The Novi Community School District administrator, along with administrators, principals and teachers across the state, is waiting for the Michigan Legislature to approve teacher evaluation reforms and new standardized tests that schools are supposed to implement this fall.

If the Legislature doesn’t act soon, Michigan schools will continue to operate with a crazy quilt of more than 800 different teacher evaluation systems, using tests that are outdated and not aligned to what students are learning in classrooms.

For school officials that have to implement those reforms, time is getting short to approve new testing. That has prompted one influential House member to introduce legislation to dust off the much-criticized MEAP test for use again next year, an option that state education officials say is a nonstarter.

“We’ve been stringing along for a couple of years now,’ said Webber, assistant superintendent of academic services for Novi schools, of the legislative twists. “The uncertainty of not knowing causes anxiety and tension.”

In 2011, the Michigan Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Snyder signed teacher tenure reform that put teeth in Michigan’s notoriously weak teacher evaluation system. Teachers who repeatedly received poor teacher evaluations could be terminated. One of the elements of those evaluations would be how much students grew during the school year, measured by some form of academic testing.

In 2011, the Michigan Legislature passed teacher tenure reform that put teeth in Michigan’s notoriously weak teacher evaluation system. Almost three years later, the Legislature still hasn’t agreed on the details of how those evaluations should be conducted, or even on which test should be used to measure student growth.

Almost three years later, the Legislature still hasn’t agreed on the details of how those evaluations should be conducted, or even on which test should be used to measure student growth.

Fixing the problem is proving to be more difficult than anyone expected, even with bipartisan support for more stringent teacher evaluation.

“It’s going a little slower than expected,” said Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, a co-sponsor of teacher-evaluation legislation, here and here, introduced in January, and which remains in the House Education Committee. (Read Bridge Magazine’s report on those bills.)

“As I have spent the last three years in the Legislature, I have come to learn that no other subject is as political as education,” co-sponsor Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, told Bridge in February.

“There are many education experts with research who contradict each other. Parents love their children and want the best for them. School boards debate curriculum and crunch budgets. Superintendents implement school board decisions with administrators and teachers. Add to the picture the taxpayers who want the best bang for the buck, and many have different thoughts on what that is. When looking at all the stakeholders in education, we have not even discussed athletics and other extracurriculars which can often overshadow academics.”

The continuing legislative debate hasn’t postponed a mandate in the 2011 law requiring districts to implement new teacher evaluations based in part on tests that would measure student growth. Without a statewide evaluation model, districts have created their own evaluation systems.

“It is important to underscore that in the initial year of implementation (2011-12), Michigan had over 800 unique district evaluation systems,” warned a Michigan Department of Education report on teacher evaluation reform. “This makes direct comparisons of district effectiveness ratings and systems extremely difficult, as ratings were not determined with standard rigor across districts.”

Webber, of Novi, put it more bluntly. “There is no standardized form of data that is required to be used,” Webber said. “So you have extreme variability across the state in what that looks like and what that means.”

MDE been preparing to ditch the long lamented Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test and replace it with the new Smarter Balanced assessment for several years. Smarter Balanced has been adopted by more than 20 states in conjunction with the multi-year implementation Common Core State Standards. And unlike the MEAP, Smarter Balance is designed to measure student growth.

Last week, the House Appropriations committee stalled that changeover, with Rep. Bill Rogers, R-Brighton, adding an amendment to the education appropriations bill ordering MDE to administer the MEAP again next year, and to put out bids for an assessment test to be given to Michigan students in 2015-16.

The amendment, which in effect postpones decisions on which test Michigan will use to measure student growth for another year, was received coldly by state education officials.

“MEAP is the test we’ve been using for 40 years. It’s not only outdated, it’s also not aligned to our state standards,” said MDE spokesperson Bill DiSessa.

On Wednesday, MDE Superintendent Mike Flanagan went significantly further, declaring flatly to MLive.com that MEAP “is not an option,” and that the state couldn’t return to the MEAP even if it wanted to.

"If we don't have Smarter Balanced, we won't have a test," Flanagan told MLive. "The MEAP is not an option. We couldn't even re-gear that up in time."

Beyond throwing state standardized testing into chaos, Flanagan said testing students on the MEAP next fall would also violate the state’s federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, which requires Michigan to give a test that measures student growth.

"We'll lose our waiver, we'll lose title money of about a billion dollars," Flanagan said. "I know some here think these are idle threats, but this is just the reality. We're under a federal waiver that requires a test and requires it to measure student growth."

Michigan stopped developing the MEAP in 2011, when the state began transitioning to Smarter Balanced, DiSessa noted. “Schools across Michigan have been planning and preparing for the new system, as well. Our hope is that as the budget process moves forward, we would be able to continue our current plan and schools will be able to benefit from the advantages of the new testing system.”

“As I have spent the last three years in the Legislature, I have come to learn that no other subject is as political as education.” – Rep. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, on reforming teacher evaluation

Zemke says he remains confident that teacher evaluation bills he and O’Brien helped put together in January, will become law. Those bills provide a framework for teacher evaluations, but do not address what test should be used to measure student growth. Slightly tweaked versions may be introduced this week in the House Education committee. “I believe most groups are on board (to pass the teacher evaluation bills) now,” Zemke said.

“It is time to remove politics from education and start investing time and dollars in to areas we know work,” O’Brien said. “This legislation was formed working with stakeholders and both political parties who have a desire to make Michigan education a leader in the nation.”

Webber hopes there’s a resolution soon. “We needed as a profession to be held accountable in healthy ways,” Webber said of the more demanding system for evaluating Michigan teachers. “A sound model of evaluation will improve (educational) outcomes. Give us a target that is clean and we know isn’t going to move in one or two years, and we’ll move the needle.”

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