Press Release

Publication date:

November 7 2012

Amber Arellano is executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based school advocacy group.

The group has served as a watchdog, focusing on efforts to improve urban education and closing the achievement gaps between white and minority students.

Education Trust-Midwest was a leading voice in calling for the state to raise its standards for Michigan Education Assessment Program exams, once accusing the state of “lying” to parents because students needed to get as few as 40 percent of questions correct on some tests to be deemed “proficient.”

Arellano is concerned that the state is change standards again on how schools are deemed needing to be placed in a category where they would get extra assistance for improvement.

By Amber Arellano
(Story originally ran on on November 7, 2012)

When Michigan received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act last summer, we applauded the news. We viewed it as an important first step by the state in being more honest with families about how our schools are performing.

But now, state education leaders appear to be quietly watering down their promise to provide more honest reporting on school quality.

Michigan Department of Education officials recently submitted a request to the Obama administration proposing to dramatically change the way they publicly report on school performance, just a few months after winning the NCLB waiver.

MDE’s proposal could lead to the state grading the vast majority of Michigan schools as doing just fine – in other words, as “proficient” – when we know so many are still struggling.

This would be a terrific mistake – and dishonest. National assessments show that Michigan students – of every socioeconomic background and race – are falling further behind in learning compared with other states. It is well known that our African-American students are achieving at the lowest levels of black students nationwide.

But as the Education Trust-Midwest has also reported, our white students are also sinking to the bottom of the national academic ladder, now trailing 34 other states in fourth-grade reading.

Here’s what MDE is doing: When the education department first sought a waiver, it promised Washington it would count students as “proficient” in a given subject if they were on track to become proficient within three years.

But the MDE now wants to remove that three-year window. In other words, MDE’s new proposal leaves open the possibility that students could be deemed proficient even if they are nowhere near proficiency, nor on track to getting there in several years – or even in 20 years.

When we contacted MDE, we were told the only real change it is seeking is to give schools four years for students to reach proficiency goals, rather than three. That would actually be reasonable.

The trouble is, its proposal doesn’t say that. If the state’s aim is to extend performance targets from three years to four, MDE should say so explicitly in its proposal.

As the proposal currently stands, the state could conceivably tell parents that almost all schools in Michigan are doing fine – even those failing miserably – if they show any growth in learning, however infinitesimal.

Consider: In other states, many Michigan schools would now be graded as a “D” or “F” in a standard A-F grading system. Under the new MDE proposal, these same schools could be essentially graded as “A” or “B” schools in Michigan.

Talk about grade inflation.

Here’s what our organization has learned over two decades: Good state public reporting and accountability systems strike a thoughtful balance between being ambitious and realistic.

We want schools to raise student learning. Yet we also need to take into account where schools are starting from; what supports they need to improve; and what information empowers parents with clear, honest, reliable information to help them make well-informed decisions that best serve their children.

So far, Michigan has failed to find that proper balance. Its original waiver proposal was probably too ambitious for schools and educators to meet. As we warned earlier this year, MDE was setting annual school improvement goals so high that it set up almost all schools for failure.

The state’s new proposal does just the opposite: It proposes to set goals so low as to be practically useless.

Leaving the time frame for students to reach proficiency undefined sends a dangerous message to schools. And it has the very real potential to mislead parents about how much progress Michigan schools and students are making.