Accountability on Deck in Mich.

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With its new proposal to revamp how K-12 public schools are evaluated, the Michigan Department of Education took the first step in what will likely be a broad, yearlong effort by state leaders to raise school accountability.

Gov. John Engler and legislators are also expected to unveil plans this month to deal with low-performing schools.

"Education will clearly be the overriding section in his State of the State speech," Mr. Engler's spokesman, John Truscott, said of the Republican governor's annual address, slated for Jan. 28. "Accountability will be a major factor."

The first shock waves were felt Jan. 7, when state education officials announced a plan to abandon a test-based system that assigns schools one of three accreditation levels. Instead, they told the state board of education that they favor a four-level system of accountability that would be used to more regularly rate schools and districts based on such factors as test scores, attendance, and dropout rates.

"We want annual reviews so that nobody gets to become lackadaisical," said Diane Smolen, the state's director of standards, assessment, and accreditation. "We are looking to see progress all the time."

State board members tabled the item, however, until some of their questions are answered. The plan still sparked considerable interest.

Mixed Reactions

Only eight of Michigan's 2,500 elementary and middle schools are now unaccredited by the state. Michigan has not been able to accredit its high schools because it lacks consistent state tests to make the ratings. Last year, the state was forced to change its high school proficiency test after many parents balked at allowing their children to take the exams. Separately, most schools--including high schools--also seek accreditation through private organizations.

Most of Michigan's elementary and middle schools are "interim accredited," which means that at least half their students have scored at the highest level on just one of four state assessments.

But nearly 300 of those schools have been deemed so shaky academically that they will share about $3 million in special state aid this school year. Even the 304 schools that meet the highest level, or "summary accreditation," have some school groups concerned.

"There is this limbo where you can get worse, but your accreditation stays in place," said Mike Flanagan, the superintendent of the Wayne County Regional Education Service Agency, which provides technical help and oversight to schools in Detroit and the surrounding area.

The education department's proposed system calls for rating schools as "low," "moderate," "recognition," or "exemplary." Annual progress on all of the state's assessments except for the writing test would be factored into a school's rating.

"At first blush, I think these are some improvements," said Gerard E. Keidel, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. "It changes from stamping a building as acceptable to saying, 'How are kids doing, and what kind of progress is a school making?' "

But the state board said there were too many questions for it to give its initial stamp of approval to the department officials' plan.

"What do they mean by technical assistance?" board member Kathleen Strauss said in an interview. "I want to be sure they know what they're talking about before they do this."

The next development on the school accountability front will likely come in Gov. Engler's State of the State Address.

His spokesman, Mr. Truscott, promised that the governor would announce a role in the schools for the incoming state treasurer, Mark A. Murray, who started in his new post last week. Before then, he was the associate vice president for business and finance at Michigan State University.

Mr. Truscott would not offer details of the treasurer's potential role in schools. He did emphasize that the governor wants better accounting for how schools spend state dollars.

Mr. Murray could not be reached for comment last week.

More Changes?

The governor has also gone on the record in recent weeks as favoring new sanctions for low-performing schools. In 1997, Mr. Engler backed a plan that would have put troubled schools in state receivership. Officials in the 180,000-student Detroit school system felt especially targeted.

In the legislature, the idea was seen as a threat to local control and was killed. But the governor could make another try this year at ousting the leadership of ailing schools without putting the state in control.

An aide to Senate Majority Leader Dan L. DeGrow confirmed that the Republican legislator had been in talks with Gov. Engler and Mayor Dennis W. Archer of Detroit over a school accountability bill.

While the plan is still in the works, the aide said that a bill would seek to find a "new form of local governance over districts."

Michelle Zdrodowski, a spokeswoman for Mr. Archer, said the mayor "is interested in some new role, but not necessarily in taking over the schools."

Last month, though, Mr. Archer told the city's elected school officials: "Either improve our public schools, and do so in a serious, significant, and timely manner, or get out of the way."

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Page 16

Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as Accountability on Deck in Mich.
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