Michigan’s A-to-F school ratings on ice until attorney general weighs in

The Michigan Department of Education’s challenge to the A-to-F school law means a likely delay to the new accountability system in a state where public schools have been struggling

Jan. 17: Six systems in 7 years and Michigan students still lag. Now comes A to F.​

The fight over grading Michigan schools on an A-to-F scale apparently isn’t over yet.

The Michigan Department of Education says it will hold off on implementing the new accountability system because of concerns that parts of the system may violate federal law, according to Martin Ackley, director of policy and governmental affairs for MDE.

Ackley told Bridge on Thursday the department plans to ask newly elected Attorney General Dana Nessel for a legal review of the policy, passed by the GOP in the waning days of December’s lame duck session and signed into law by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last week.

The law requires MDE to create a system to grade schools from best (A) to worst (F) in five metrics: proficiency in math and English; growth in math and English; growth in proficiency among English as a second language students; graduation rates; and academic performance compared to similar schools.

You can read the law here.

Most Democrats in the Legislature opposed the measure, as did the education department, which has spent two years creating a different accountability system that has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Bridge’s request for comment to the Attorney General’s Office wasn’t immediately returned Thursday and it’s unclear what Nessel, a Democrat, would do with the matter.

Feb. 4, 2019: In one month, Dana Nessel erases many of Bill Schuette’s federal pursuits
Related: Dana Nessel moves to drop Michigan from suits fighting EPA clean air rules

Nessel wasted no time responding to her office’s first request for legal review – from newly elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to examine another lame-duck law supporting the boring of a tunnel under the straits of Mackinac to replace Enbridge’s Line 5. Nessel received that request Wednesday and immediately released a statement saying she had “serious and significant concerns” with the tunnel law.

A legal opinion from the attorney general is not binding on courts, but can be binding on state departments. If Nessel were to suggest that parts of the A-to-F policy violated federal law, it likely would, at minimum, delay implementation.

“We are looking for guidance about how to move forward,” Ackley said. “It may be fine, but we don’t know. We don’t want to violate federal law.”

Ackley said the department also plans to reach out to the U.S. Department of Education for guidance on the legality of the policy.

Legal questions about the A-to-F rating system were first outlined in a Dec. 18 letter from Sheila Alles, interim State Superintendent, to the House of Representatives asking the chamber not to approve the policy.

In the letter, Alles, who holds the top MDE position, warned that the A-to-F proposal exempted special education students from accountability metrics, which she said violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Ackley echoed those legal concerns to Bridge on Thursday.  

ESSA also requires that all schools be evaluated by the same accountability system; but Michigan’s A-to-F policy omits schools designated as “alternative education.”

Accountability measures for schools, which often include metrics such as student performance on standardized tests, are required by federal law. While those measures vary from state to state, they must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

In her letter to legislators, Alles outlined other reasons she vehemently opposed the law. She wrote that by creating a new means for gauging school progress, the policy would cause the “accountability clock” for schools to be “reset again,” and “the goal post moved yet again.”

You can read the interim State Superintendent’s letter here.

Legislators approved the A-to-F policy hours after receiving Alles’ letter.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Former Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, the sponsor of the bill, declined to comment. In December, Kelly said he did not believe the law violated federal law. Kelly said he believed the A-to-F grading system for schools will make it easier for parents to gauge how schools are performing.

Casandra Ulbrich, co-president of the State Board of Education and a Democrat on what is now a Democratic-controlled board, said she agreed with MDE’s actions.

“Prior to the vote, it was made clear to the Legislature and the Governor that the bill, as written, was problematic and was believed to violate aspects of federal law and the state's ESSA plan,” she wrote Bridge in an email. “Unfortunately, the Legislature and the Governor decided to move forward anyway, necessitating further direction from the AG and the USDOE.” 

Ulbrich said the State Board of Education is “currently reviewing the legislation as well to determine potential next steps from the Board's perspective.”

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 01/04/2019 - 6:53am

Schools grades students so that parents can gauge the progress of their children and take appropriate steps when problems arise.

Educators balk when they are held to a similar standard. Dutiful educrats fall in lockstep and oppose them as well.

If anyone has children attending Michigan Schools, they should be very concerned with these actions.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 9:13am

Agreed. The Michigan Public Education industry puts out a terrible product. I've been hearing since the 1970's they they just need more money to fix it. Baloney.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 12:01pm

How was your K-12. Education? Did you attend public school?
A-F grades for educators is a fixed one dimensional idea which does not adequately address a child's education and learning abilities. Are you an educator by profession?
And FYI- all educators are not Democrats...

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 1:40pm


Paul Jordan
Fri, 01/04/2019 - 6:02pm

I would be very interested in seeing the results of a study comparing K-12 educational outcomes in Michigan to other states before the shift of control (and funding) from local districts to the state legislature.

My IMPRESSION is that, pre-Proposal A, our achievement levels were quite competitive with the rest of the country. Now, current data shows that our achievement levels are totally inferior. We are now near the bottom, and flat-lined.

I believe that philosophical opponents of public education blame educators for the effects of the continual 'reforms' that they have inflicted. They have reformed Michigan's educational system practically to death.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 2:05pm

Kevin I call B.S., Republicans want charter schools to receive great grades while public schools get poor grades because of the type of students they teach. I would argue only Republican pet educators are being served well in this dispute. I do agree with you about being concerned with education in Michigan it is designed for the rich white people of the state. BTW I thought these grades were objective? who will hand out the grades???

Kevin Grand
Mon, 01/07/2019 - 6:13pm

Why bother re-inventing the wheel, Mark?

M-STEP & MME are already administered to students in Michigan Schools via the MDE.

Use that for your metric

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 2:55pm

I'm very concerned, but not at the legitimate objections educators have raised to an inappropriate accountability system. I'm concerned that the Republican Party would ignore the warning of everyone who knows what they're talking about and implement this system over their objections. I'm also concerned that we have citizens ignorant enough to believe that these letter grades, based mostly on factors affected by parenting, are a "similar standard" to the grades teachers give children on the kids' own work.

So there's lots of reason to be concerned. But it doesn't appear that Kevin Grand understands any of it.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 8:02am

Of course the Left can't stand for grading schools as to their effectiveness. When your view is that the State is capable and responsible for every thing, your only resort when faced with failure is to shoot the messenger and cry for more money. We've got four years to get used to this.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 9:46am

Letter grades are a simplistic, Trumpian reasoned response to the public's frustration over the decline of Michigan schools. If your kid gets a D in geography, what does that really mean? He was poorly taught? Needs breakfasts? Parent died? Stressed out from poverty? Bored? Letter grades to not reflect the circumstances surrounding the kid's education . Parents need more data to make a decision about a school's performance. The edges of the continuum may be roughly accurate but that's about it. A stupid knee-jerk reaction to a complex problem.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 9:55am

The problem I believe is what measure you use to grade a school when frankly some areas are better prepared than others. My son's school isn't rated as high as a school in Troy but compared to the rest of Detroit it's really high and great at getting kids academically prepared

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 9:16am

It's pretty much guaranteed that Nessel (D) will find some reason to kill it. The MDE is run by Democrats. The policy was instituted by Republicans. It's the only reason she needs.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 1:48pm

True Republican thinking. Just look at the GOP now: anything Obama did needs to be repealed, destroyed, etc. No need to look at it rationally and if it worked or didn't.
Kinda like Snyder's huge business tax cut. 'Will create jobs'. No prior study nor anything after the fact. Most businesses pocketed the money - just like the latest Trump tax cut. Into the pockets of the wealthiest and corporations. And you know who had to pick up the slack left by the huge hole. Just like after the Great Recession. The little people can work harder, for longer and for the same.

Bob Balwinski
Fri, 01/04/2019 - 9:39am

Checking to see if a state law passed in the lame duck session violates Federal law before implementing it sounds like a sane and logical step to take.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 9:51am

This is just another money wasting exercise by the Republican lame ducks. The major determiners of academic success are not manipulatable by the schools. The key variable being how strongly does the parent want, and are able to support, the child to get a good education. Is the child properly nourished? Do they get a proper night's sleep? Do they have regular school attendance? Do they regularly do their homework? Regular medical and dental services? How often do they move and change schools?
There are schools that are moderately successful in trying dealing with these constraints but the simplistic system devised by the legislature won't identify them and probably only waste money making matters worse.

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 4:55pm

Get ready for 4 years of nothing but Resist and watch the start of the decline of Michigan.

Chuck Fellows
Sat, 01/05/2019 - 7:44am

Rank and rate. Reward and punish. Foolish.

Demand the scores from whatever testing be displayed as a distribution (histogram). You will see a curve centered around a mean.

It will demonstrate that the scores produced and the conclusions drawn are meaningless.

Data absent context are meaningless. Every child is an individual and must be treated as an individual, not just another widget in the warehouse waiting to be processed by date of manufacture.

Janet Van
Mon, 01/07/2019 - 11:00am

"Former Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, the sponsor of the bill, declined to comment." Pretty much sums it up.

Earl Newman
Mon, 01/07/2019 - 11:39am

It is not likely that the legislators have the knowledge base or expertise to devise a system for evaluating schools' performance. It would be more helpful to the general welfare if the legislature were to create a commission charged with devising an objective system to assign A-F grades to serving legislators and for reporting those scores to the public on a regular basis.