Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

November 5, 2013

Another View: Make quality focus of school ratings

Two well-worn bits of advice seem appropriate regarding the next bit of angst over improving and monitoring Michigan’s K-12 public schools.

They are: “The devil is in the details” and “Be careful what you wish for”.

Lawmakers announced late last week that the color-coded accountability system put in place just months ago is already subject to plans for an overhaul. House Education Committee Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, plans legislation to switch the new system to letter grades instead of colors.

Let’s start with the matter of details. One problem with the color coding was that it wasn’t easily understood. Green was supposed to denote top schools and red those with the most difficulties. In the middle was “yellow” which stood for caution. Fewer than 3 percent of the state’s 3,397 school buildings earned a green ranking. And about half of those earned the ranking not because of top test scores or academic performance but because they were new schools open only one year and they met administrative requirements such as testing 95 percent of their students or filing an annual report. That leads to second problem with the color-coded system: The quality standards should truly reflect a measure of quality. Filing annual reports and testing a high percentage of students don’t indicate anything about the quality of classroom instruction or the results that instruction delivers.

And that leads to being careful about those wishes. Posthumus Lyons wants to switch to a letter grade system of A through F to rank school buildings. Equating such “grades” with typical report card marks, such a system ought to be easy for parents to understand.

Yet even this change can be perilous. If schools can earn an “A’’ grade for fulfilling administrative requirements alone, letter grades will be just as flawed as the color scheme. And there always is reason to fear the blowback that occurs every time reformers broach changes to K-12 accountability systems. Officials at Education Trust-Midwest, an education policy and research group based in Royal Oak, caution about the temptation to ease up use of “D’’ and “F’’ grades to avoid angering communities whose schools are so marked.

The truth is a lot of Michigan schools don’t educate students as well as parents and community leaders might like to think they do. The best recipe for success is to focus on quality. That can’t be done without honestly acknowledging where high quality is absent, whether it’s noted in color schemes or letter grades.

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