Editorial: Test swap would stunt accountability

The Detroit News

Michigan school Superintendent Brian Whiston is moving forward with his vision to revamp student testing in the state, and while some of his ideas are certainly worth considering, the timing is the biggest problem. After changing the standardized test just two years ago, another new test means delayed accountability for schools.

Since he took over the role as school chief in 2015, Whiston has consistently advocated for a different way of testing. He is not a fan of how much time students spend taking tests, and he doesn’t think the current once-a-year test is the best measure of what students are learning over the course of a school year.

Whiston is right on some of those points.

But the state just underwent a major revamping of its 40-year-old annual standardized test, at a significant cost.

Education advocates and business leaders agree the new test — the Michigan Student Test for Educational Progress (M-STEP) — is the right assessment to move schools in a better direction.

And there is no question that Michigan’s public schools need major improvement. Michigan’s students are falling behind and are not seeing the kind of progress many other states are achieving.

In addition, the M-STEP is aligned to the national Common Core content standards, which Michigan adopted six years ago.

In seeking another testing option, Whiston is joined by some Republican lawmakers who are also discontented with the M-STEP, but for different reasons. They aren’t comfortable with the Common Core, and don’t appreciate having a test that goes along with it.

Here’s the problem with getting rid of the M-STEP at this juncture: It would make it much harder to enforce accountability measures, from teacher evaluations to deciding which schools are on the failing list. The M-STEP has only been in place for two school years, and Whiston would like a new testing plan in place as soon as possible.

But the state needs year-over-year data to compare student and school performance accurately. Once the test changes, it makes it much harder to judge improvement — or the opposite.

The Michigan Department of Education says Whiston wouldn’t need the State Board of Education’s approval to proceed with a testing change, but he has kept the board updated. Plus, the next test would have to be in compliance with the latest version of federal education law.

The board, which hired Whiston, was aware from initial interviews that he wanted a different test, so it is likely to approve what he brings them.

School leaders and teachers are often resistant when the state makes them adjust to a new test. That was the case with the implementation of the M-STEP.

Yet a dozen statewide education organizations, including the Michigan Education Association, the Michigan Association of School Boards and the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, are in favor of making the change.

In fact, these groups sent Whiston a joint letter on Aug. 8, voicing their support for a new text that would be implemented starting in 2017 and stay in place for a decade.

It’s worth noting that the next day, Whiston came out with his statement in support of a new adequacy study that called for increased state spending on schools. Whiston got what he wanted and he offered these school groups support for more money. A win-win, right?

No other state currently uses the kind of benchmark testing system that Whiston wants to implement. Given Michigan’s poor academic performance among the states, it’s bad timing to make such a significant change.

The state should keep its current test, at least for now.