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Published in Print: July 11, 2001, as Michigan Kills Test-Heavy School Rating Plan

Michigan Kills Test-Heavy School Rating Plan

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Michigan’s new schools chief has scrapped a school accreditation system that had yet to produce its first public ratings, saying it relied too heavily on state test scores.

"The accreditation system under discussion is mainly a MEAP-based performance-measurement system— and that simply is not good enough for our children," state schools Superintendent Thomas D. Watkins, referring to the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, contended in announcing his decision last month.

Mr. Watkins’ determination to "reconstruct" the system and postpone the ratings for as much as a year drew applause from educators but brickbats from the governor and some business leaders.

"We’re delighted," said Michael P. Flanagan, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents statewide. Using "a single measure’s a joke," he added in a reference to the system’s reliance on MEAP scores.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. John Engler said that the Republican chief executive was disappointed that the ratings had not been released after four years of work on accreditation by the state education department. "We think that we need to move forward on this," said Susan Shafer, the spokeswoman. "It’s not fair to the parents ... that want to get information on the quality of education in a particular school."

Controversy over the system grew in April when the Detroit News calculated that about 17 percent of the state’s 660 high schools—and 40 percent of those in the Detroit area—would be labeled "not accredited" under the new system. A school would have gotten the "not accredited—interim" status if fewer than 80 percent of students took the required reading, mathematics, and science tests, or if fewer than 25 percent of test- takers passed any one of those tests. If that 25 percent threshold were not met on two or three of the tests, the school would have been deemed "unaccredited." ("School Accreditation Plan Drawing Criticism in Michigan," May 16, 2001.)

Protests, Complaints

Educators protested that schools with good overall records could be unfairly tagged with negative labels, and four prominent education groups—the state largest teachers’ union, the superintendents’ organization, the school boards’ association, and an association of urban districts, not including Detroit—threatened to sue the state if the plan went forward. They charged that the plan violated the 1997 state law that called for a new accreditation system, because it relied solely on the MEAP.

Meanwhile, a Michigan business leaders’ organization and a statewide group that supports publicly financed vouchers for private schools called for the rankings to be released.

Further complicating the picture, the state Senate has been making headway on a package of bills for identifying and aiding the state’s hardest-pressed school districts. Under the proposed legislation, the criteria for selecting the districts would include more than test scores. That package of bills passed last month, and headed to the House.

Superintendent Watkins, a Democrat and the compromise pick of an elected state school board with a 5-3 Democratic majority, walked into the accreditation dispute when he took office in April. He promised then to hear from various groups with a stake in education before making a final decision.

"There wasn’t the buy-in," Mr. Watkins said last week. "This wasn’t the route to go."

The superintendent stressed that he was in no way backing off from higher academic standards or caving in to interest groups. He also disputed the notion that parents lacked information about their local schools, pointing out, for instance, that MEAP scores are available on the Web.

But the head of Michigan Business Leaders for Educational Excellence, which includes the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said that the demise of the system was a lost opportunity because the designation "unaccredited" would have immediately spotlighted the performance of weak schools. "We see [the ratings] as a way to get people involved who are not traditionally involved, and that’s what everybody has agreed to for four years," said James M. Sandy, the Lansing-based group’s executive director.

The business leaders’ group has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the ratings so that they can be made public, Mr. Sandy added.

Senate Action

Mr. Watkins said that the new system under development would likely include attendance and graduation rates, and should be as compatible as possible with Standard & Poor’s new Web-based report on Michigan school districts, new federal requirements for standardized testing, and any plan that the legislature might pass to improve education in troubled districts.

Under the legislation approved in June by the GOP-controlled state Senate, the definition of a "priority" school district would hinge on being in the bottom 5 percent statewide as ranked by state test scores, dropout and graduation rates, and proportion of students reading at grade level. It would also depend on the proportion of students eligible for subsidized lunches, a common measure of poverty. Other indicators would be added later, including attendance rates for teachers and students.

Once selected, the districts would be evaluated on academics, management, and finances and be ordered to follow an improvement plan formulated by a new State Educational Improvement Board. Corrective measures could include hiring consultants or a management company to run the district or adding more charter schools.

Vol. 20, Issue 42, Page 22

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