Opinion: State’s report card law helps parents evaluate schools

Ben DeGrow
In this Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018 photo, students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large back populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.

Engaged and informed parents are a vital part of the effort to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for children. That's why Lansing lawmakers' adoption of a new school letter grading system should be embraced as a small but critical piece of turning around the languishing performance of Michigan schools.

House Bill 5526, familiarly known as the A-to-F bill, crossed the finish line as the clock neared midnight on last year's legislative session. Opposition from organized interest groups failed to halt the success of a concept that is popular outside the Lansing beltway. A 2018 poll conducted by MAPSA, the state's charter school association, found statewide support of school letter grades besting opposition by 69 to 22 percent.

No grade could possibly capture all that is important about a school's quality, but some parents greatly value the sort of information that will be used in Michigan's new report cards. A recent Mackinac Center survey found that many public charter school parents, especially those who are lower-income and racial minorities, put great weight on a school's math and reading scores when making enrollment decisions.

Replacing vague designations such as the recent color-based scheme with letter grades will help parents, including those who have felt frustrated by what they see as the incomprehensible jargon of school professionals.

The onus will fall on the Michigan Department of Education to craft the finer details of the letter-grading system. A review panel will check on a draft version before the first round of grades is unveiled by Labor Day. Details to be worked out include where to draw the lines between an A and a B, a D and an F, and so on.

The new law clearly requires the department to give each Michigan public school up to five letter grades. Results on state tests will determine most of a school's grades. There will be separate marks for raw achievement scores, year-to-year student growth, and a comparison with schools of similar student demographics.

The last category means that the state has adopted an approach already used by the Mackinac Center in our Context and Performance Report Card. The report card, first released in 2012, takes multiple years of state test results and adjusts the scores based on levels of student poverty within a school. This has made it easier to distinguish schools that are beating the odds with a challenging population from those that are not.

Take, for example, the charter high school that topped the Center's brand-new report card. Every 11th-grader at Warren's Michigan Mathematics and Science Academy last year was eligible for federal lunch assistance due to family poverty. The state’s school index ranks it in the bottom third statewide.

But the school recorded the best score ever on our report card, barely displacing Star International Academy in Dearborn Heights from its three-time hold on the top perch. Ninety percent of Star International students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Charter schools are not the only high flyers on our latest report card. It also gives honors to district schools that have outperformed expectations, such as Dearborn Fordson and rural Baldwin, which had adjusted scores in the same plane as more affluent schools from Ann Arbor and Okemos.

The passage of HB 5526 gives state officials the chance to clearly distinguish the academic results of schools facing similar levels of student poverty. If the new system is properly designed, it would provide parents another useful tool to make informed choices about their children's education.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research organization based in Midland, Mich.