Michigan Chief Sees School Ratings, Sanctions in Future

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Michigan state schools chief Thomas D. Watkins is betting that his new blueprint for school accountability will win approval by this spring, ending four years of official wavering over how best to rate schools in the Great Lakes State.

The new system, which still faces a vote by the state board of education, would base annual school ratings less on state test scores than did the unpopular one it would replace. It received a relatively warm reception from educators when it was unveiled last month.

"We've developed an accreditation system that's worthy of the 21st century," Mr. Watkins said. "It's fair, balanced, and with rigorous standards."

Mr. Watkins scrapped the state's previous accountability plan about two months after taking the superintendent's job last year. That system had based school ratings almost wholly on Michigan Educational Assessment Program scores, a strategy that educators across the state vehemently criticized. The system Mr. Watkins tossed out had been three years in the making, but had never gotten to the point of producing public rankings.

Under state law, schools that get poor ratings from the state face a range of sanctions, including replacement of the principal or even closure. But, without a system to rate schools, the sanctions cannot be applied.

Like Florida's, the new system would tag each school with an A-to-F letter grade. More than a half-dozen factors other than test scores would count for a quarter of the grade. The factors would include degree of family involvement, attendance and dropout rates, quality of professional development, and, for high schools, the proportion of students enrolled in college-level classes.

'Roasting the Hot Dog'

The rest of a school's grade would come from MEAP test scores considered in three different ways: how students scored on average in a single year, how they scored on average in each of three consecutive years, and how they scored individually on the tests from one level to the next (4th to 7th grade, for instance).

The aim is to capture not only a school's current level of achievement, but change over time, and the boost that schools give to individual student achievement.

The framework does not yet specify cutoffs, or the way in which non-test factors would be measured.

Under the proposal, schools would receive their first grades in the spring of 2003, but the grades could not lead to sanctions until 2005 when the data for schools would be complete.

The timeline is a sticking point for the plan's critics, who wonder if state education officials have the political moxie to forge ahead.

"We've fiddled around the campfire for years and every time we get close to roasting the hot dog, the whole process gets put off another year or so," said James M. Sandy, the executive director of Michigan Business Leaders for Educational Excellence, a group whose members include the state Chamber of Commerce.

Educator complaints about the current system, which was to have provided ratings last year, peaked after a newspaper estimated that some 900 of Michigan's roughly 2,850 schools would be designated "not accredited."

Mr. Sandy said his group is tired of waiting and will soon release its own list of high-achieving schools as measured by MEAP results.

The group is not alone in growing impatient. State legislators and Gov. John Engler, a Republican, have also voiced frustration with the delay.

In general, however, education leaders, including the powerful Michigan Education Association—the state affiliate of the National Education Association— have hailed the new plan as an improvement.

"I think it's much fairer," concluded Michael P. Flanagan, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. Nonetheless, the former local and regional superintendent said he is lobbying hard for the system to include at least one additional grade that would indicate a school's success in raising the MEAP scores of those students that schools have so often failed academically—children from poor families and those from minority groups.

Mr. Watkins' proposal will be discussed at seven public hearings across the state, beginning this week.

In more complete form, the plan is expected to go to the state board of education for a vote in February, then to the House and Senate education committees, which must also ratify the plan. Approval is not required from the full legislature.

Vol. 21, Issue 18, Pages 16, 19

Published in Print: January 16, 2002, as Michigan Chief Sees School Ratings, Sanctions in Future
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