Mich. drops A-F school grades in revised education plan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Department of Education this week re-submitted a proposed school improvement plan to the U.S. Department of Education dropping accountability options previously supported by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder had backed proposed A-F letter grade system listed as two of three options in the state’s initial education plan filed under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. But the state department’s revised plan drops those A-F options in favor of a single school-level “transparency dashboard.”

It also makes other modifications requested by federal officials two weeks ago as the state seeks approval after filing an initial plan in April.

“When the plan first was submitted, it contained three options for school accountability,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston said Friday in a statement. “After the Legislature adjourned for the summer, it became clear that we would be going forward with a transparency dashboard.

“Our staff have been working diligently to fully develop that dashboard and an index from which to identify the state’s most struggling schools. Identifying those struggling schools is required by both federal and state law, along with the supports those schools will be receiving.”

Michigan legislators have long debated creation of a statewide A-F letter grade system to rate individual schools. And while the new federal education plan does not call for an A-F system, legislators could still mandate it in the future.

State Sen. Phil Pavlov, who chairs the education policy committee, said the state education department filed its initial plan prematurely. He expects the Legislature to “weigh in” on a potential A-F system in September.

“I think we’re going to fully vet that proposal and that process,” said Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, who had not yet reviewed the revised education plan filed this week. “I thought it was a little early to be submitted (in April), but we’re going to continue talking.”

Pavlov noted the $617 million Detroit schools bailout Snyder signed last year calls for the state School Reform Office to create an A-F letter grade system for the city’s new debt-free district.

“My goal is to get an accountability system in place, not necessarily a suite of five or six options,” he said. “I think the way to go with this is something consistent that all districts comply with rather than one part of the state using a dashboard while another district is required by statute to use A-F.”

The transparency dashboard, supported by the State Board of Education and described in a recent policy outline, will compare schools to the state average and peer schools on a variety of performance metrics.

The state plans to release the first phase of the transparency dashboard this fall and finalize it by late 2019.

The education department said it also added technical details and clarified aspects of its initial plan required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, requires states to develop plans that address standards, assessments, school and district accountability and special help for struggling schools.

A Snyder spokeswoman declined immediate comment on the revised plan, saying the governor’s office is “going to need time to review it.”

In an April letter confirming he was consulted during development of the initial plan, Snyder said he did not support the transparency dashboard option because it would not assign letter grades.

“A summative A-F letter grade for schools empowers parents, offers transparency, and focuses resources where they are needed most,” the governor said at the time.

“I look forward to working with our partners in the Legislature on crafting a school accountability system that works for Michigan students and parents.”

The State Board of Education in March adopted an official statement opposing an A-F letter grade system, saying it “significantly increases the high-stakes nature of the statewide assessment and thereby negatively affects the education of students.”

State and federal education officials discussed potential modifications to the education plan earlier this month. The state filed the revised plan Thursday, as requested by the U.S. Department of Education.

Because of the “short turnaround time” for resubmittal given by the U.S. Department of Education, the state department said it did not directly involve education stakeholders in the latest revision.

“We will be bringing back the education stakeholders who helped develop the original plan and update them on the re-submitted details,” Whiston said. “The decisions made on the resubmitted plan were based on their input throughout the original process.”