Lansing — Michigan schools would receive an A-F letter grade “report card” under new legislation supporters say will help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children.
The proposal introduced by House Education Committee Chairman Tim Kelly represents the latest move in a long-running debate over school accountability systems that has divided legislators and education officials for years.
Under the plan, traditional and charter public schools across the state would receive letter grade measurements for both student proficiency and student growth. Parents also could see how a school compares to others with similar demographics, and how “subgroup” performance compares statewide.
Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, attributed declines in Michigan student performance to elimination of an A-F school accountability system more than a decade ago, saying, “I think that began a slide.”
“When we’re not accountable, performance wasn’t there,” he said in an initial public hearing on his bill.
The proposal comes less than a month after the Michigan Department of Education launched a new “parent dashboard” website that provides information about school standardized test scores, attrition rates, expulsions and student-staff ratios.
That plan was approved by the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act. State officials also had initially proposed two versions of an A-F grading system but were not able to proceed with those plans absent legislative approval.
Kelly said his bill is a “middle of the road” proposal he hopes can break a stalemate in Lansing, where Gov. Rick Snyder has urged legislators to finalize an A-F school system during his final year in office.
“It’s not an A-F summative grade that many will call for, and it’s not the kind of nebulous state board dashboard, which I think has lots of useful information but I think still masks poor performance more than it should,” Kelly said.
He did not call for a committee vote Thursday as legislators debated merits of his bill and heard testimony from education officials and experts. An additional hearing is expected next week.
Rep. William Sowerby, D-Clinton Township, said he is concerned that a student could be “branded” based on the grades his or her school receives.
“Every school has high-achieving and low-achieving students, but I have a fear that a student that graduates from a low-achieving school would be prejudged and potentially be discriminated against in whatever they decide to do after graduation,” he said.
Sowerby also questioned whether the “report card” proposal would reflect socioeconomic disparities, noting that some schools have larger numbers of students who live in poverty and “have more to worry about than just their next test.”
State Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, said she was “alarmed” by the suggestion that a letter grade system for schools could lead to discrimination against students.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to ask the tough questions,” Alexander said. “How do we compare with others? How might we improve?”
Students applying for college or the military are “accepted or denied on their own merits,” she said. “We have an SAT in place. The judgment is placed on that individual.”
The Michigan Board of Education officially opposes A-F letter grades for schools. In a March 2017 statement, the bipartisan board said an A-F system “significantly increases the high-stakes nature of the statewide assessment and thereby negatively affects the education of students.”
House Bill 5526 would create an Education Accountability Policy Commission to develop the system, which would grade schools on six specific indicators.
In addition to proficiency and growth, the report card would measure growth towards English language proficiency by second-language speakers, the graduation rate of high school students, the rate of chronically absent students and participation rates on state assessments.
The Department of Education would rank schools based on academic performance in relation to comparable schools along with performance rankings for subgroups, such as how African American students at one school compare to all African American students statewide.
The commission would also develop standards to identify low-performing “comprehensive support and improvement schools” and high-performing “reward schools.”
The $617 million Detroit schools bailout lawmakers approved in 2016 requires the State School Reform Office to design an A-F grade system in Michigan’s largest city by next year. The new bill would apply statewide.
A separate state law requires the state to consider closing chronically poor performing schools. The Snyder administration last year agreed to delay closures for at least 18 months as districts participate in a “partnership” support initiative developed by state Superintendent Brian Whiston.