Officials: Statewide A-F school rating system conflicts with federal law

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Michigan's controversial A-F legislation was signed into law on Dec. 28 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. It requires the state to rate K-12 schools on various metrics and hand out A-F letter grades for parents to review.

Michigan's new A-F school rating system conflicts with federal law and the state's federal education plan, officials at the Michigan Department of Education said.

MDE spokesman Martin Ackley said the department has received guidance from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office that the new law does not fit the requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to develop plans that address standards, assessments, school and district accountability and special help for struggling schools.

The controversial A-F legislation was signed into law on Dec. 28 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder during a lame duck session. It requires the state to rate K-12 schools on various metrics and hand out A-F letter grades for parents to review.

"We now are in conversation with the U.S. Department of Education on areas in which the state law conflicts with the federal law and with Michigan’s approved ESSA Plan," Ackley said.

That conversation arises after Ackley said interim state superintendent Sheila Alles met with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Jackson, and his staff on the issue and that Shirkey requested a timeline from the department on what is being done to implement the new statewide school accountability system.

"We are in the process of finalizing that detailed and comprehensive timeline, which includes the time needed to build the system and structure for such a statewide accountability system," Ackley said.

Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann confirmed he met with Alles but declined to answer other questions about the future of the system.

"The majority leader is willing to discuss with the department how the Legislature may be helpful in removing obstacles to implementation," McCann said on Tuesday.


Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said her office will not comment on the law and said any legal advice it provides the state education department is confidential.

"As you know, we serve as attorneys for the department and provide advice and counsel as needed, which would be attorney-client privilege," Rossman-McKinney said.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education were not immediately available for comment.

MDE officials said they sought a legal opinion on the A-F school rating system in January before beginning implementation. The state has until Aug. 1 to implement the system.

Alles, who opposes the new system, raised legal concerns before the law was approved. Alles said the new law exempts special education students from the participation rate in the state's assessment, which would violate federal disability law and federal education law.

Alles also said ESSA requires all schools be included in a single accountability system. The new law omits alternative education campuses from the system and would violate ESSA, Alles said.

The law is backed by the charter school lobby and choice advocates who say it will help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children.

Unions and traditional public school groups objected to the plan, arguing it could stigmatize schools with high student-poverty rates and disrupt districts adjusting to a state accountability tool unveiled in January.

The A-F system does not assign a cumulative letter grade to each school. Instead, it hands out grades in five areas: English and math proficiency on a state test, growth in English and math scores, growth among English language learners, high school graduation rates and academic performance compared with similar schools.

The state will rate schools as significantly above average, above average, average, below average or significantly below average based on student rates of chronic absenteeism, participation on state tests and performance compared to similar peers.

School choice and charter advocates contend that creating a uniform system across the state will help parents make informed decisions about where to send their children.

Meanwhile, education officials in Detroit last week approved an A-F rating system for Detroit schools only. The system applies to both traditional public schools and charter schools.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said on Monday his district is ready to embrace greater accountability for student performance as are individual schools.

"We believe this school grade model properly emphasizes growth while incorporating proficiency," Vitti said. "Over the years, as we see the dividends in investing in long overdue curriculum and leader and teacher professional development then we will balance proficiency and growth."

Vitti said he is excited about the incorporation of deeper college and career indicators. The metrics within the grading system align the district’s strategic plan and we look forward to including them in our evaluation systems and performance pay opportunities.

"We also look forward to an accountability system that will measure district and charter schools equally,” Vitti said.

The Community Education Commission, formed by Mayor Mike Duggan to ensure access to Detroit schools, began development of the Detroit grading system last fall in a collaboration with public school officials, charter schools, teachers, organized labor and community groups.

The Detroit-only accountability system will focus predominantly on student growth and allow schools to use different tests to measure it.

The accountability system will assign a letter grade to each public school based on a 500-point scale. There are 106 schools at Detroit Public Schools Community District and 60 charter schools in the city.

Vitti said the commission that worked on the Detroit system attempted to make it compliant with federal education laws and ESSA requirements that all children are included in the accountability system.

Problems with the statewide system, Vitti said, are the result of a lack of stakeholder input and collaboration, including lawmakers moving forward in lame duck without consulting MDE.

"We would like to ask Michigan lawmakers to consider our system for the state system or Wayne County or a regional system," Vitti said.