ETM Statement on Proposed New “A to F” School Accountability System

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Contact info: 

Donnell Green
The Education Trust-Midwest
dgreen@edtrustmidwest.org
c: 248-854-5297

Today Amber Arellano, Executive Director of the Education Trust – Midwest, and Daria Hall, Director of K-12 Policy Development at the national Education Trust, gave testimony to the Michigan House Education Committee on HB 5112, which proposes Michigan adopt a new state-wide school accountability system. Their testimony is below.

Publication date: 
November 13 2013

(November 13, 2013) -- Thank you for giving us the chance to speak to you today about HB 5112, the proposed A to F school accountability bill. I am Amber Arellano, the executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest. With me today is Daria Hall, the Director of K-12 Policy Development at the national Education Trust. Daria is one of the country’s foremost experts in school accountability. Ed Trust – Midwest is a non-partisan, data-driven education research and advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels – pre-kindergarten through college. Our goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people – especially low-income students and students of color – to lives on the margins of the American mainstream. We work to be a source of non-partisan information and expertise about Michigan students.

Ed Trust – Midwest and the national Ed Trust have long been supporters of strong school accountability systems. Done right, they are an essential tool in the effort to close gaps between groups and raise achievement for all students.

We are here today to discuss the bill’s merits and improvements to the bill that would ensure greater transparency and honest information for all Michigan parents and stakeholders – and would provide our state the flexibility needed to adapt as we adopt new assessments and get better data on student performance in the coming years.

Good accountability systems:
1)    Set clear, ambitious but achievable goals for educators to work toward;
2)    Provide regular signals about school performance to parents, community members, and policymakers;
3)    Reward schools that are successful with all students; and
4)    Prompt meaningful action when schools aren’t serving all students well.

A to F letter grades can be part of a strong accountability system by providing clear, transparent, comprehensible signals of school performance. As such, the Ed Trust-Midwest supports the concept of A to F grades. In fact, ETM was one of the first organizations in Michigan to call for A to F school grading during the development of the state’s new accountability system.

But A to F grades are only as good as what’s underneath them. They serve their intended purpose of clarity and transparency only when they clearly signal how schools are doing on the most important indicators of achievement and improvement for all students. When, instead, they’re based on flawed or incomplete measures, they actually undermine clarity and transparency – because parents assume they know what an “A” or a “C” means, even when they actually don’t. Flawed school grading systems, in other words, can actually set thoughtful school accountability back.

The proposed A to F grading system in House Bill 5112 gets many things right. It sets expectations for both current-year performance and growth over time. Both are critical measures of school success.

HB 5112 also gets it right by including school performance in multiple important subject areas, including the gatekeeper subjects of reading and math but also writing, social studies, and science. And it recognizes the importance of high school graduation rates and other measures of college and career readiness for our secondary students.

Finally, HB 5112 gets it right by ensuring the Michigan Department of Education will report on the aggregate number of effective and highly effective teachers in a school under the new educator performance system, which if done right, would give parents and communities a better sense of the teaching quality in their public schools – while respecting individual teachers’ evaluation ratings as the development tool that they are, not making them public.

However, the bill is missing some important components that are absolutely essential to any good accountability system.
Our recommendations include:

1. Hold schools accountable for the performance of low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners

Clear expectations for all groups of students – including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners – are essential. By excluding these groups from the proposed A to F grading system, HB 5112 runs the risk of taking Michigan back to a time when the performance of the very students who most need our attention and support was swept under the rug. Michigan’s students can’t afford this huge step back. Nor can our communities or our economy. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has long valued the inclusion of these groups, and we do not expect that to change.

To help illustrate how disastrous a retreat from subgroup accountability would be for Michigan, please allow me to share some brand-new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous assessment that students in all states participate in:

•    Michigan is one of the nation’s lowest performing states for African-American, Latino and low-income students:

o    In 4th grade math, our African American students don’t just rank considerably below our white students—they rank dead last when compared with African American students in all other states.
o    Our low-income 4th graders are near the bottom in math, too, performing well-below low-income students in Indiana and Minnesota—and at about the same level as low-income students in Alabama.
o    In 8th grade math, our Latino students rank 43rd out of 46 states.

The underperformance of low-income students and students of color in Michigan has grave consequences for them. Unless we turn these patterns around, many of these young people will be literally locked out of decent, family-supporting jobs. But the consequences are grave for our state, as well. Together, low-income students comprise almost half and students of color make up a quarter of our current students – and future workers.

Some assume that Michigan can “take care” of this problem by including in school grades growth measures for the bottom 30 percent of students in each school. But it turns out that measuring growth among the lowest achievers is not a substitute for meaningful accountability for all groups of children. As you well know, not all low-income students or students of color perform at the bottom, and to assume they do is not only inaccurate, but offensive.

Fortunately, this problem can be addressed with relative ease by including, as part of the A to F grading formula, proficiency for all groups of students – including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners – in the 5 tested subjects. Likewise, it should include as part of the formula subgroup growth in reading and math.

2. Allow time and flexibility to build a system based on Michigan’s reality and real data – and supports our educators’ and students’ transition to new assessments

Michigan is currently in the process of adopting new state assessments and a student growth model that will give us more and better information on whether our schools are on a path to raise student performance to college-and-career-ready levels. These data – as the timeline of the current bill acknowledges – will not be available for several years, making it impossible to model the results of this proposed system in actual data.

That’s a problem. Without real data, we cannot be certain that the system we have designed actually works as we intend.  Indeed, if we have learned anything about accountability over the last decade, it is how easily good intentions go wrong without real data.

Again, there is a fix here that needn’t slow down Michigan’s transition to an accountability system using letter grades.

Here’s what we propose: that the bill include clear specifications for a school accountability system to be implemented at the conclusion of the 2015-16 school year. Those specifications should include a requirement to assign A to F grades and a requirement that those grades be based on the performance and growth of students overall and all groups of students. But they should stop short of specifying the precise measures or points allotted. In order to get accountability right, the Michigan Department of Education needs latitude in analyzing the new data when it comes in and in designing measures and a grading scale that accomplish what you intend – and a system that makes good sense for Michigan.

Until this new A to F grading system is enacted, the Michigan Department of Education should continue to operate the existing accountability system. Its color codes may not be perfect, but it is considerably better than what it replaced.

3. Include measures in addition to assessment results

Assessments provide critical information about what students are learning, and that must always be at the heart of our school accountability system. However, research supports what many parents intuitively know: tests alone don’t tell the whole story. There are other important indicators of school performance and quality.

The proposed bill already provides flexibility to include measures of college and career readiness in high school accountability, such as the percentage of students completing the Michigan Merit Curriculum, Advanced Placement, and IB classes, and the percentage of students enrolling in post-secondary education and training.

We recommend you go just a little bit further by also allowing the MDE flexibility to include a limited number of additional measures for all schools, including factors such as attendance, results from student and parent surveys, and a measure of school “climate” that would focus on whether students and teachers are getting the supports they need to succeed.

4. Reward high performing schools and intervene powerfully in the lowest-performing schools
 
As important as it is to get the A to F grading system right, it’s equally important that school grades are accompanied by meaningful action.
 
Consistently high-performing schools should always be held accountable, but should be granted autonomy from some state requirements. HB 5112 gives the Department of Education the ability to grant such flexibility to schools that earn As or Bs. MDE should follow the example of leading states by granting these schools flexibility from certain improvement planning requirements.

The bill provides for consequences to consistently low-performing schools in the form of closure or state takeover. After a school receives an “F” grade, it needs to get support and intervention from the state, with clear goals for getting a higher grade. If the school does not improve, the Superintendent should have discretion to determine a course of action. Closing individual schools or turning them over to the Education Achievement Authority should not be done without consideration of the turnaround efforts on-going at those schools. In some cases, Michigan foundations and other institutions have invested millions of dollars and they are in the early stages of turnaround work. The Superintendent should be given latitude to consider early signs of improvement before making a decision about school closure or state takeover.
 
And the bill should go further to prompt interventions in low-performing schools before getting to the point of closure or takeover. Research shows successful school turnaround always starts with a strong staff, and some states are acting on that. For example, in Florida, districts cannot employ teachers who do not receive at least an effective rating on their evaluation in “F” schools. Likewise, the district must ensure that “F” schools get principals with a record of raising achievement in similar schools.
 
Michigan should follow suit and link staffing decisions in “F” schools to the results of educator evaluations.

5. Hold alternative schools accountable

Parents and students of alternative public schools deserve to know how those schools are performing, just as other Michigan families do. And alternative schools need to be held accountable for their performance, just as other schools are. Otherwise, the risk is that Michigan will have more and more alternative schools, and less and less accountability.

To address this problem, we recommend that the definition of alternative campuses be tightened so that schools with very low graduation rates are not exempted from accountability. We also suggest that you direct the MDE to develop an accountability framework for genuine alternative schools that still provides reliable information to parents and prompts action when students in these schools are not being served well.

Conclusion

As you work to finalize this legislation, we hope these suggestions are helpful. Certainly, the intent of this bill is a good one, including its emphasis on ensuring student growth is a significant consideration in the state’s school accountability system and the assignment of A to F letter grades for schools. Unless what is underneath those grades is well-conceived and drives change for all of Michigan’s children, we won’t achieve our shared purposes.

By making these several changes, you can ensure, though, that schools are held accountable for all groups of children; that parents get the information they need to make good decisions on behalf of their children; and that the proposed grading system will be grounded not just in good ideas, but in good data.

Thank you for your time today.

The Education Trust-Midwest is Michigan's only data-driven, non-partisan state-wide research and advocacy organization focused on what is best for Michigan students. Our mission is to work for the high achievement of all students, particularly low-income, African-American, Latino and American-Indian students in Michigan, and to provide honest, reliable information and expertise to our state's families and policymakers.

www.edtrustmidwest.org

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