Michigan set to close low-performing schools

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Low-performing schools across Michigan are in jeopardy of closing, according to the state School Reform Office.

A determination will be made by the end of the year, according to School Reform Officer Natasha Baker.

“The SRO is having August meetings with board presidents, authorizers and superintendents who have Priority Schools,” Baker said Tuesday in an email. “During this time, we are discussing the role of the SRO (our mission, vision and values), state policies that establish our office, and the school building data relevant to student performance relevant to our audience.”

Baker said the office will have “data formatted by the end of the calendar year that will determine which schools are facing a next level of accountability, which is not exclusive to school closures.”

Poor standardized tests results could be the determining factor.

Baker said a “starting point” could be taking three years of data, closing schools that fell in the bottom 5 percent in 2014 on the state’s former Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, and those schools that were on the bottom in 2015 and 2016 on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress.

Baker said state officials will use 2016 M-STEP data as well as data from preceding consecutive years to “determine next levels of accountability for chronically failing schools.”

“There are schools in Michigan that have been identified as chronically failing nearly every year regardless of the assessment taken for over a decade,” she said.

Asked if more than 100 Michigan schools were ranked in the bottom 5 percent in 2014, Baker said yes, but there are exceptions.

“Please do not confuse the schools identified with those facing a next level of accountability,” she said. “Most of the schools on the 2014 list are schools not necessarily at risk as we use multiple years of information before making determination.”

Baker said information on how many schools will be on the list this year using 2015 data will be published Sept. 1.

State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, criticized the School Reform Office for what he called a lack of transparency.

“The decision to close an unknown number of schools, based on data from two entirely different tests without any clear, consistent and transparent processes to help schools improve, is completely irresponsible,” Zemke said in a statement. “This will leave Michigan families in flux, wondering what their options will be for their children’s education going forward.”

The planned use of M-STEP results comes after the Michigan Department of Education said last year that results from the new standardized exam given that spring would not be used to assess districts’ performance.

Since then, however, Gov. Rick Snyder has moved the School Reform Office out of the department’s jurisdiction and placed it under the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

Tuesday, MDE spokesman Martin Ackley said the department hasn’t changed its stance.

“MDE has committed to not using the new assessment data to identify a Top to Bottom list, and we are keeping to that commitment,” Ackley said in an email.

“The State Reform Office, outside of the Michigan Department of Education, is choosing to use its own authority outlined in state law, to identify a new bottom 5 percent of schools,” Ackley said.

The M-STEP was developed to align the state’s standardized assessment more closely with Common Core state standards.

Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan, said he thinks the notion of closing failing schools is a good idea.

“Having schools do the same thing year after year and get the same negative results does not seem to be a good educational practice,” he said. “However, the process should not stop at just closing schools, but instead should include plans for students who attended these failing schools.”

Baker emphasized that school closures are not the only option.

“Next levels of accountability are not limited to school closures,” she said. “Dealing with chronically failing schools is a multi-layered process that requires actions that will increase the expectations for public education here in Michigan.”