Proposed A-F Detroit school grades to focus on growth

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Ralph Bland, right, reads with fourth-graders, including, Sa'nay Pace, center, during class. Bland is the Detroit Edison Public School Academy CEO and president and founder of New Paradigm for Education.

Detroit — Detroit's charter and traditional public schools will be the first in the state to be under an A-F school rating system when it is in place, which could be as soon as December.

The accountability system, a mandate attached to a $617 million state bailout of Detroit Public Schools in 2016, will focus predominantly on student growth and allow schools in the city to use different tests to measure growth, education leaders say.

An A-F grading system has been considered by state lawmakers for all Michigan schools but has failed to muster support. Detroit's rating system would remain in effect until there is a statewide accountability system to replace it, officials say.

The system is expected to be finalized by December — first approved by the commission and then by the state — so schools know what they are being graded on and how, said John Barker, a consultant for the Community Education Commission.

Responsibility for approving the Detroit-only system sits with the state school reform office. The state partnered with the city's Community Education Commission to draft a system and collect community input this fall.

The first set of grades will be released in October 2019 and will be based on two-years averages from the current 2018-19 school year and the previous year as required by the state, Barker said. The commission is still considering how to weight those years, he added.

First-graders Bella Garcia, left, and Moria Jackson face each other during a reading exercise at Detroit Edison Public School Academy on Thursday morning.

The accountability system will assign a letter grade to each public school — there are 106 schools at Detroit Public Schools Community District and 60 charter schools in the city — based on a point scale of 0 to 100.

Under a current draft model, student growth will account for 56 percent of a school's score, student proficiency for 24 percent and non-academic factors for 20 percent.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who sits on the commission's design team, said although the grading system is being imposed on Detroit, it is an opportunity for city stakeholders to implement a rating system with Detroit context in mind.

"We are making inroads to creating a rating system where we can finally look apples to apples at district schools and charter schools," said Vitti, "and start to see where schools are rising and improving, and where schools continue to fall short of expectations, so we can provide the right intervention, the right resources."

The commission's design team has proposed two rating system models: one for K-8 schools and one for high schools. Each model lists multiple metrics to measure year-to-year growth, current proficiency and non-academic factors such as student survey results and re-enrollment and absentee rates for schools.

For students in grades K-8, the commission is proposing growth in math and reading be measured using alternative assessments — such as iReady used by the Detroit district and NWEA used by most charter schools — rather than the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, the state assessment tool.

Vitti said M-STEP does not provide a score specific to individual student growth. Rather, it is based on how a student performs compared to other students, he said.

"No school, no teacher, no parent is doing anything differently based on how M-STEP is reported out as far as growth. It’s not changing practice,“ Vitti said. "NWEA and iReady give you more actionable data to use, and it also gives you a growth measure.

“This goes back to trying to use this system to create a change in practice. What we want to see is practical change so more students are showing growth and moving to grade level performance. We want this (system) to inspire and motivate individual teachers and principals to do things differently so they gain credit for moving students in growth."

Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said the department supports districts choosing their own benchmark assessments.

Barker, who helped design a grading system for Chicago public and charter schools, said while Detroit schools and charters will use different tests to measure growth, the Detroit rating system will have a standard setting for each test to know what appropriate growth looks like on each test, "whether it’s a year's worth of growth for a year of instruction or above a particular average."

Officials say the state law mandates the system look at growth and proficiency in reading and math only. But the commission says it is making several additions, including adding science and social studies growth and proficiency rates for K-8. 

The commission also wants 24 percent of the K-8 score to include points for reading and math growth for continuously enrolled students, defined as students enrolled the previous year and current year. 

For high schools, it wants 26 percent of the score to be based on the growth in the percentage of high school students enrolled and passing college- and career-level courses.

The commission's design team decided that growth should be the largest component of the rating system because schools and teachers should be rewarded on their ability to move students forward year after year in Detroit.

“We recognize that all schools have opportunities for improvement. The CEC has decided that where schools start is far less important than where they finish, and is proposing a model that heavily weights — and rigorously measures — growth indicators,” said Katie Rae Stolper, director of operations and accountability at the commission.

Ralph Bland, founder and president of New Paradigm for Education, a nonprofit charter school operator and a member of the commission design team, said proficiency also matters.

"It is important that all schools and students have a starting point. But the goal is that we want students to get to a level of proficiency,"  Bland said. "You can have growth within a student, but that’s not the level you want with the student. We shouldn't lose sight of that."

Bland says he wants the rating system to be used on a broader scale by the business community, researchers and others, but its primary focus will be to help families find a path to a quality school with good teachers and leaders.

"This is a new chapter in Detroit. We need more accountability,"  Bland said. "Accountability brings change. Change is hard for people but change has to happen for improvement."

Detroit's rating system would remain in effect until there is a statewide accountability system to replace it, officials said.

Vitti said his hope is that the system used in Detroit acts as a guide for state lawmakers.

"I think it's only fair and logical that all schools in Michigan regardless of ZIP code are attached to a rating system," Vitti said. "We have deeper issues academically beyond Detroit, but we are often used as the scapegoat. Hopefully, this will be a process of how we change the conversation across the state as well."

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which represents charter schools across the state, says an A-F system should be implemented statewide. A 2016 poll found 79 percent of Michigan residents want the state to adopt a letter-grading system for schools.

"Schools must be accountable. A fair, consistent and easy-to-understand system of accountability will ensure that. No such system currently exists," MAPSA spokesman Buddy Moorehouse said. "A letter-grading system will support rising school achievement and give parents a valuable tool for selecting the right school for their child."

The commission's executive director, Stephanie Young, said as a single parent in Detroit, she had to navigate the city's education landscape on her own, which includes public, charter and private schools.

"What is important for the CEC is making certain that our parents and families, educators and other stakeholders know what is coming," Young said. "This work is important. We have a unique opportunity to design this model ourselves. It’s not coming from Lansing this time. It’s for us determine how best to design a model that will be fair as possible to our own schools, students and families."

At a meeting held Thursday night at the Detroit Parent Network about the proposed system, Bernita Bradley, a mother of two, said she wants more information on proficiency to be provided to parents so they can understand what it means and where their child should be at a certain grade.

"Parents need access to where their kids should be and what kind of questions to ask the teacher. You may not know what proficiency is and how many words they should know by third grade," Bradley said.