Column: Improve school accountability plan

Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright

It’s bad enough Michigan recently dropped its plan to issue annual A-F grades for its schools, but that’s hardly the worst of it. The state’s proposed plan to hold schools accountable for student outcomes fails to meet the educational needs of high achievers—especially those growing up in poverty.

The proposal, released in February as part of the state’s obligations under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), suffers from the legacy of its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. That law created incentives for schools to focus their energy almost exclusively on helping low-performing students get over a modest proficiency bar, while neglecting those who were likely to pass state reading and math tests regardless of what happens in the classroom.

A strong accountability system signals to schools that the progress of all students is important. Yet the proposed framework does little to give its poor and minority high achieving students the attention they desperately require and deserve. To remedy this, the state’s final draft ought to include four key improvements.

First, bring back summative school grades, and make growth of all students from one year to the next count for at least 50 percent. Growth measures do a far better job of capturing schools’ effects on children’s academic achievement than proficiency rates, which are strongly correlated with demographics, family circumstance, and prior achievement. To its credit, Michigan recognizes the importance of growth, via its proposed use of student growth percentiles. But if policymakers in Lansing don’t make it more of a priority for all schools, many students will continue to be misjudged by policymakers and the public.

Second, for the academic achievement indicator required under federal law, give schools additional credit for getting more students to an advanced level on state assessments, instead of exclusively rewarding schools helping get kids to “proficiency.” As dozens of scholars and policy analysts explained in a letter submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last July, proficiency rates are poor measures of school quality.

Other measures — such as performance indices and average scale scores — would meet ESSA’s mandate without encouraging schools to focus narrowly on students performing near the proficiency line (something that is particularly pernicious for high-achieving poor and minority children). For example, Michigan could create an achievement index that gives schools partial credit for getting students to a basic level of achievement, full credit for proficient, and additional credit for getting students to an advanced level. More than a dozen states already use such an index.

Third, Michigan ought to further signal that high achievers matter by making them a visible, trackable “subgroup,” akin to special education students or English language learners, and by publishing school ratings based on their progress. The state could define this group as every student who is achieving at or above an advanced level on statewide assessments and then report their growth in each and every school.

Finally, the state should encourage high schools to help able students earn college credit before they graduate by measuring the percentage who succeed on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, which are among the best ways to challenge high performers. Michigan’s proposed system indicates no intention to do this, which is a mistake.

For too long low-income high achievers been an afterthought — a fate no child should suffer. The four changes proposed above will signal that Michigan is committed to providing these students with the education they deserve.

Michael J. Petrilli and Brandon L. Wright are president and editorial director, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.