Senate GOP passes A-F grade system for Michigan schools despite superintendent objection

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Kids in class at Madison Elementary School.

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Tuesday night approved controversial legislation that would require the state to rate K-12 schools on various metrics and hand out A-F letter grades for parents to review, a plan opposed by the State Superintendent.

The upper chamber signed off on the measure in a 21-17 vote at 8:22 p.m. after suspending rules to vote on the long-discussed measure without holding a public committee hearing on the final draft. The House had amended and narrowly approved the bill Thursday in a 3 a.m. vote.

The proposal, headed toward GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk with just two days left in the so-called lame-duck session, 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 even after it was scaled back in the House, arguing it could stigmatize schools with high student-poverty rates and disrupt districts already adjusting to a new state accountability tool unveiled in January.

Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles criticized the proposal earlier Tuesday in a letter to lawmakers, saying it “undermines two years of investment and stakeholder input” on the state’s new parent dashboard and includes provisions that either conflict with a federally approved plan or violate federal law.

Supporters downplayed the letter, saying the U.S. Department of Education would ultimately determine compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Snyder personally met with individual lawmakers Tuesday evening at the Michigan Capitol to secure votes for the plan.

The proposed A-F system would not assign a cumulative letter grade to each school. Instead, it would hand 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 would also 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.

The Michigan Board of Education has consistently opposed the push for an A-F grading system, but Republican member Eileen Weiser vouched for the legislation earlier Tuesday at the state Capitol.

“It’s better certainly than the current system,” Weiser said, referencing the parent dashboard the Michigan Department of Education launched in January.

“It’s always possible MDE could do a better job with the dashboard,” she added, suggesting the current state system may not comply with federal rules requiring the state to provide parents with clear and actionable information. “That’s what I had hoped.”

The state board in May appointed Alles to serve as interim superintendent. 

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti blasted the legislation last week because it could also force the city district to use the proposed state system instead of its own A-F letter grade system that was mandated under a 2016 state bailout and is set to be unveiled later this month.

Imposing a third accountability system on Detroit schools in less than three years “will only exacerbate instability in Detroit’s educational landscape,” said Monique Marks and Stephanie A. Young of the Community Education Commission last week in a joint statement.

The commission developed the Detroit grading system in an “unprecedented” collaboration with public school officials, charter schools, teachers, organized labor and community groups, they said.

Specifically, the Detroit A-F system is expected to “incentivize” schools that successfully serve continuously enrolled students, prepare students for college and improve academic performance among the bottom 30 percent of students.

The state proposal “contains none of these measures” and “threatens to undermine a comprehensive grading system that is aimed at improving Detroit schools,” said Marks and Young.

House legislators last week scrapped a provision that would have created a commission that critics feared would operate as a “shadow” state board of education.

Instead, the Michigan Department of Education would develop the school grading system but submit it to a temporary “peer review panel.” Because the law would not take effect for 90 days, Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer would appoint three members to the panel, and GOP legislative leaders would appoint two others.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said the revised legislation would empower the Education Department to create an A-F letter grade system that could still “align” with the Detroit version.

"We've spent several years (on the A-F proposal) getting feedback and engagement from stakeholders and other parties, including the traditional school community," he said. "Our goal has been one single accountability system."

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

“Schools, all of our districts, are state entities, and it’s pretty hard to have a meaningful accountability system when there’s multiple ways of being scored,” he added.