Opinion: Looming changes won't help Mich. schools

Shawn K. Wightman

There are a number of changes coming in 2019 that are going to have major implications for Michigan’s public schools. 

To be more specific, another school accountability system is going to be established by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) as a result of recent “lame duck” legislation. This system is being implemented, in part, to improve Michigan’s dismal education ranking in the country, despite strong opposition.

It requires assigning A-F letter grades to schools in five different metrics: student proficiency in math and English, student growth in math and English, student growth among English language learners, graduation rates, and a school’s academic performance on the state assessment compared to similar schools.

The new system will also assign a ranking of significantly above average, above average, average, below average, or significantly below average to each public school for chronic absenteeism, state assessment participation rate, and student performance compared to similar students statewide. By law, these, and other measures, will all have to be established by September 1, 2019.

Another looming change coming involves Public Act 306 of 2016 (MCL 380.1280f), better known as the Read by Third Grade Law. This law takes full effect this fall and requires Michigan third-graders, attending public schools, be retained if they score less than one year behind on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) in English Language Arts, or fail to demonstrate a third-grade reading level through an alternate test or portfolio of student work.

Moving forward, it is very unlikely that these changes will have a positive impact on Michigan’s public schools. For instance, considering A-F letter grades, similar systems being used in states across the country today have not helped to improve educational ranks in reading or math as delineated by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Third-grade students entering Michigan's K-12 public schools this fall will be subject to retention under the state's third-grade reading law if they are not reading at grade level on the state assessment in 2020.

As a matter of fact, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia all have A-F school rating systems and continue to perform well below NAEP averages in reading and math as compared to other states.

Without a doubt, the Read by Third Grade Law will produce perhaps the most severe ramifications for public schools in the state, due to the fact that only 44.4 percent of all third-grade students in Michigan passed the M-STEP English Language Arts assessment in 2018, with some schools having less than 15 percent proficient.

Bearing this in mind, a lot of parents will likely be looking for new schools, once they receive notice from the state that their child failed the M-STEP assessment.

Moreover, such outcomes will also exacerbate the A-F school accountability system, with failing grades being awarded to low performing schools in ZIP code areas with higher concentrations of economically disadvantaged children. The state would also see additional costs if more students were held back in third-grade, thus requiring an additional year of education would result in an additional year of per-pupil funding for each of those students, although the fiscal impact on the state would not occur until the first cohort of students retained in third-grade reached grade twelve.

Clearly, 2019 is going to be a challenging year. Even so, there is hope in newly elected governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who understands that educators need more support, rather than draconian policies or regulations that will likely fail to benefit Michigan’s public schools. Her plans for education are well documented and aligned to the state’s Top Ten in Ten Years initiative, which focuses on quality education from cradle to career, paths to prosperity with a highly educated workforce, respect for educators, and stabilizing school funding and improving accountability.

Shawn K. Wightman is superintendent of Marysville Public Schools