A tough sell in Michigan

Grades for schools: Debate not over?By DAVID EGGERT
Associated Press
LANSING — The debate over publicizing A-to-F grades for every public school in Michigan is not entirely over, despite a surprise decision by top education officials to back away from the proposed system that proponents say has worked elsewhere.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston will default to “dashboard”-style report cards without any letter grades, to replace the current color-coded marks that have come under much criticism. But the caveat remains that the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder, who required letter grades in Detroit as part of a state bailout of the district, could still decide that letter grades should be issued statewide.
It will be a tough sell.
Rep. Tim Kelly, who chairs the House Education Committee and who backs A-to-F grades, said there probably is “not a great appetite” among lawmakers to require the calculation of a single summative grade for each school. But they may vote by summer to require letter grades to be issued in subcategories such as how a school’s students do on the state test compared with others and their progress over time, he said.
“We’re going to have to pick this ball up,” said Kelly, a Saginaw Township Republican who criticized Whiston’s reversal. “Whatever we do has to be simple, transparent and meaningful. … The whole idea was there was no reason to have Detroit as a stand-alone and it should be statewide.”
Whiston reports to the elected, bipartisan State Board of Education and not Snyder. He acknowledged Tuesday at the board’s meeting that he clearly was heading toward implementing letter grades. He personally prefers issuing grades in various subgroups, but not cumulative grades.
“I think the board wanted to go in a different direction. So it’s the board that has done this,” he said, pointing to its unanimous vote against letter grades. Venessa Keesler, a deputy state superintendent, said public comments on A-to-F grading were “somewhat balanced” for and against.
The agency will propose three options in a plan to comply with a new federal education law. One would give each school an overall letter grade and grades in various categories; another would issue letter grades in the categories only; and a third — the default — would publish a dashboard-style scorecard with no letter grades.
“I think this is going to be an ongoing conversation that may or may not get resolved,” Whiston said, referring to legislators. The Republican governor supports A-to-F grades. A-to-F legislation died in the House in 2013.
Whiston’s decision was praised by local superintendents and teacher unions but criticized by school-choice promoters and research groups such as the Education Trust-Midwest, which advocates for higher student achievement, particularly for minorities and the poor. It urged Whiston not to backpedal on “real accountability.”
“Using a clear summative letter grade, the state would provide a clear signal to students, parents and other community stakeholders about how their school is performing against national performance benchmarks and other schools around the state,” said executive director Amber Arellano.
Josh Cowen, an associate education professor at Michigan State University, said research shows that letter grades — which he said are inherently easier to understand than other marks — had a positive effect in New York City, especially when schools were given an F instead of, say, a D.
“It is the intention to avoid the lowest grade that we end up seeing some of the benefits,” he said. Cowen said when New York later stuck with a similar accountability system but dropped letter grades, “we found no positive effects anymore.
“The idea is that people just don’t know what it means anymore” when a lot of information about a school’s performance is publicized, he said. “Parents don’t know what it means. Some of the districts’ leaders and teachers don’t know what it means. But everybody knows what an A means and everybody knows what an F means. You have to kind of weigh the cost of stigma against a very real way of summarizing information in a way that people can understand and act on.”
Board members from both parties said overall letter grades are superficial, deceptive and could unfairly affect the real estate market in communities. They said parents know the quality of their local schools.
“Worse than us giving them a whole lot of information is giving them something that’s so simplistic that it can be misleading,” said Pamela Pugh, a Democrat. “They are concerned about one summed-up letter grade truly capturing the essence of what’s going on in those buildings.”
According to Michigan’s draft plan, initial modeling showed that grades would have been distributed as follows: A (23 percent, 634 schools), B (29 percent, 804 schools), C (22 percent, 612 schools), D (13 percent, 348 schools) and F (14 percent, 383 schools).
Republican Eileen Weiser said she supported letter grades as recently as a month ago but changed course after hearing “very powerful arguments.” She expressed concern, though, that Michigan has not found a way to improve schools even at a time of increasing alarm that students have lost much ground nationally.
Fourth-graders rank 41st in reading, and eighth-graders rank 37th in math, according to a commission Snyder tasked with recommending changes to the education system.
“We aren’t moving our worst schools along enough … and we also haven’t found a way to move children to better schools in a lot of the areas where these schools exist,” Weiser said.