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Dashboard Or Letter Grades For Schools? By September, State Will Have Both

August 13, 2019

Dashboard or letter grades — it’s been the ongoing debate in the education community of how best to measure and display school performance.

But assuming nothing changes in the near future, Michigan parents and the public will soon have both.

By Sept. 1, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) is required to assign a letter grade in five different categories to each public school. That comes after MDE was required to submit on Aug. 1 its plans to create an A-F system to an A-F Peer Review Panel. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed the peer review panel at the end of July.

Details on how the A-F system looks now weren’t made available by the MDE, as spokesperson Martin Ackley said they are “draft working documents that are advisory in nature and are preliminary to a final determination and action.” But by Aug. 15, the panel is required to submit its findings to the MDE and the House and Senate education committees.

The A-F system will come in addition to the existing school accountability plan developed by the MDE and approved by the feds as part of the state’s plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As part of that system, MDE developed the schools performance dashboard as directed by the State Board of Education (SBE).

Legislative Republicans passed an A-F law at the end of lame duck in 2018 over MDE’s objections, as the department warned it would violate federal law and risk Michigan’s schools losing out on federal funding. Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill on the way out of the end of his term.

MDE then sought out legal clarity from both the feds and Attorney General Dan Nessel.

The department hasn’t received a formal opinion from the AG, and SBE President Casandra Ulbrich said discussions with the AG’s office are ongoing.

But in June, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) told the MDE that “there are several undeniable conflicts that would prevent the school accountability system” created by the A-F bill from meeting federal requirements. 

That’s according to a letter penned by then-interim state Superintendent Sheila Alles to the legislative policy staffers of the four caucuses dated June 4 that recounted a conversation with the feds about the issue. 

Further, Alles said the USDE “made clear” that “waivers seeking to limit or reduce the accountability provisions of the federal law have not historically been granted and are not likely to be approved, if Michigan were to submit a formal request.”

Alles noted the uncertainty of applying for such a waiver would result in a period of time where the state “would be bound to follow the accountability system in its approved ESSA plan” — which involves the dashboard — “as well as the system created under PA 601, which would result in two systems,” a reference to the A-F law. 

But a few months have passed since that letter and nothing has changed, meaning MDE must move forward with following both the ESSA accountability plan and the A-F law.

In other words, “Michigan will have two separate accountability systems for its K-12 schools,” MDE spokesperson Bill DiSessa said.

The MDE and the SBE don’t want the A-F law and would prefer it were gone, instead going with the plan approved under ESSA that was developed over a two-year period. 

Ackley said, “all schools and districts are going to have to understand their performance in two separate systems, which are comprised of different measures and could lead to disparate results.” He also said schools and districts may have to explain why they were identified as low-performing in one system but not the other, or in both systems.

Ulbrich said the presence of two systems is “awful and terrible,” as well as “chaotic and ridiculous and confusing.” 

At the local level, school leaders are more concerned right now about getting ready for the school year, said Peter Spadafore, the associate executive director for advocacy and communications for the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators (MASA).

But he said having two systems “does nothing to provide clarity for Michigan’s parents,” and he added that if the state keeps changing the accountability system, “they are meaningless to the parents, to the districts . . . to everybody.”

But legislative Republicans want A-F and think that’s the best way to keep schools accountable. The House Education Committee chair said the MDE is dragging its feet on implementing a bill lawmakers want, but the department doesn’t.

“Me and my fellow legislators that I’ve talked to are not willing to back down on this,” Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.) said. “This is something that needs to be done for students and parents and there needs to be accountability.”

Hornberger said the A-F legislation had “compromises that were looked at, that were accepted” and that “it wasn’t shoved down anyone’s throat.”

Asked about the practical impacts of having two systems, Hornberger said parents aren’t going to move their kids out of a school they may be happy with even if it gets an average grade.

“It’s a transparency system for . . . parents to finally be able to look and see where their schools stand. But if their school is a ‘C’ when they look at it, and they’re happy with the school, they’re not moving their kid.”

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