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Published in Print: March 27, 2002, as Michigan on Verge of Getting New System to Grade Schools

Michigan on Verge of Getting New System to Grade Schools

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After years of stop-and-start efforts, the Michigan state board of education has approved a school evaluation system that would give each school a grade using what is likely the nation's broadest array of grading criteria.

Under the plan passed by the board this month, a complicated formula would be used to award each Michigan public school a grade of A, B, C, or D/Alert or to deem the school unaccredited.

About two-thirds of the grade would come from the performance of the school's students on the state's tests, including whether they improved or not over three years. The rest of the grade would be based on a host of factors, from school attendance rates to the quality of teacher training. Other criteria would include the presence of preschool programs in elementary schools and advanced coursework in high schools.

Those factors would yield five grades of A to F. Test results would generate the sixth and most influential grade.

The overall grade would be used to identify schools for additional help and, by 2003-04, to mete out penalties. Schools at the bottom of the scale could see their staffs reorganized or be turned over to an outside operator.

"We wanted a system that was very complicated under the hood, but when you saw the car, it's a very clean and pristine look," said Thomas J. Bucholz, a spokesman for the state education department. "I think we've been able to accomplish that."

The system still must win approval from the legislature's education committees. If the plan goes forward as school officials expect, Michigan will join about 20 other states that rank all of their schools and a similar number that require schools to meet cutoff scores on tests or receive poor ratings.

Michigan would also join the few states that give letter grades to schools and demand that at least some test-score data be broken down and evaluated by racial and ethnic subgroups.

Beginning with the 2002-03 school year, meanwhile, the recently reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act will require all states to provide annual school-level reports that include aggregated student achievement data.

Compromises

The last time that Michigan evaluated its schools was two years ago. That system put only about 100 schools in the "unaccredited" category.

An attempt to produce a new accreditation plan collapsed almost a year ago, after intense criticism from educators prompted the new state schools superintendent, Thomas L. Watkins, to start over.

Critics, including state school board members, decried the proposed system for rating schools based almost exclusively on results of the Michigan Educational Assessment Plan tests. At the same time, though, business leaders, state lawmakers, and Gov. John Engler, a Republican, have complained about what they say is an unconscionably long wait for the new ratings.

While passing- rate cutoffs and other means of evaluating a school's performance have yet to be set for the new plan, state officials guess that hundreds of schools would get D's or the "unaccredited" rating on the first round of grades, scheduled for December.

In approving the plan put before it by Mr. Watkins, the state school board accepted several compromises between the warring camps. On the one hand, the evaluations would encompass a host of conditions that educators say factor into a high-quality education, including the condition of school facilities.

On the other, the system would give the most weight to test results—though less than Mr. Watkins first proposed—and would generate a single grade for each school. A system that rates schools on their performance rather than one that simply points out their ills is a priority for Mr. Engler and the business leaders.

State board member Sharon L. Gire, one of five Democrats on the eight-member board, said she fears the plan is incomplete and leaves too many decisions to an expert advisory panel that the board is to appoint this spring.

"I believe political pressures on the board and the new superintendent led the board to go too fast," she said.

Vol. 21, Issue 28, Page 21

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