Feds need to keep an eye on Michigan schools

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An annual educational activity everyone hates — but is necessary particularly in the wake of the pandemic — will roll out at the end of this school year. It is assessment. That is the measurement of learning. The COVID-19 pandemic wrecked the school year 2020-’21.

Assessment will tell us just how wrecked it is.

Education officials on all levels want to know this information, but the normal ways of getting the information won’t work, said Michael Rice, the Michigan superintendent of public instruction. That is what he told the U.S. Education Department when he asked that assessment conducted at federal levels be waived.

Changes like this require a public comment period. Nearly 300 comments were given, and an overwhelming majority, 96%, backed up Rice. I am right there with them, up to a point. That point is, the assessment is going to be conducted to the benchmark of state education standards, not national standards.

That’s not cool. Michigan is doing poorly on the education front. We used to be a premiere education state with public universities including the Harvard of the Midwest, the largest single campus medical school in the nation, and the premier land-grant university. And Black students aspired and were admitted to these schools.

But now we are an education experiment, including charter schools cannibalizing public school districts. Michigan K-12 education ranks 38 of 50 states, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. Only 50% of our high school graduates go to college.

“Over the last fifteen years,” wrote the advocacy group, The Education Trust-Mid-West, “Michigan’s relative rank has fallen dramatically in early reading and math student achievement compared to the rest of the country. Gains made by the nation are not being shared in Michigan. Data suggest Michigan’s K-12 education system is witnessing a systemic failure.”

The Education Trust-Mid-West is concerned with Michigan students, especially African-American, Latinx and poor students. The nonpartisan, data-driven education policy, research and advocacy organization is an affiliate of a national group, The Education Trust. It is supported by foundations located in these cities: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Battle Creek) The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (Flint), Skillman Foundation, and Max M. and Marjory Fisher Foundation (Detroit) and Steelcase Foundation (Grand Rapids).

The Education Trust-Midwest said Michigan is among the worst education states in the country, worse than traditionally abysmal states such as Nevada and Mississippi.

If you haven’t heard Michigan called Miss-chi-gan, you aren’t talking about schools enough.

Let’s talk about educational measures.

Assessment is not just another test. Assessment measures where the student sits relative to where they should be. And the entire district is judged by that. It is a system by which instruction and learning is judged against a standard.

Assessment looks at both teaching and learning by requiring certain achievements of all students studying the same subject. That is called the standard. The faculty decide what students should learn and agree to teach to that. How they teach that is the educator’s business, or used to be.

In the end each student needs to know the same basic skills and knowledge. A good example is grade three reading. Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law requires third graders be up to snuff on reading by the end of that year, or they are not promoted.

The law is a judgment on teachers and parents who suffered with lawmakers who siphoned off money from the public schools for decades. It takes money to educate people, but in Michigan we have cheaped our way through.

It started with the lottery. In 1972, voters were led to believe they were adding to the public school dollars. Actually, the way it works is lottery dollars replace tax dollars.

What have lawmakers expanded instead? Prisons. Numerous reports, including “Misplaced Priorities: A New Report from NAACP” (2020), show that poor education is a sure path to prison.

The assessment waiver the state superintendent requested would not relax the Read by Grade Three Law. That’s a good thing. People fall into a deep dark pit when they fall behind in learning to read. English is a difficult language, what with borrowing words and grammar rules from so many other languages.

I wrestled with assessment during my 18 years teaching at Lansing Community College. Like many people, at first I didn’t get it at all.

I taught college composition. One writing standard was critical thinking: Does the student question information?

In our assessment, a few student essays were drawn from each class and judged. Did the student meet, fall below or exceed the standard? That was indicated with a check (✔), check minus (✔-) or check plus (✔+). The data showed if our program was doing what we said we wanted it to do.

Real estate can also help explain assessment.

Homeowners get a city or township property assessment each year on their house to help determine taxes. It generally looks at the house against the standard of the neighborhood. When it’s time to sell, the market value of the house relies on an appraisal. Home owners want low assessments so their taxes will be low, and high appraisals so they can sell for top dollar.

Assessments work in education as they do in real estate. A reputation as a poor school district is the high tax paid when a district falls behind other districts. Appraisal is evaluation. Evaluation is familiar to every person who ever was a student. Evaluation is grades given to specific students from specific classroom teachers. Teachers vary. Some won’t give low or failing grades. Others shy from giving high grades. Everyone has their pets. I did.

School districts want their assessments high and their appraisals accurate.

Michigan students already have big gaps in their learning, so much so that remedial instruction is now offered at our state universities. On the 2020-2021 assessment The U.S. Department of Education must keep both eyes on Michigan.

(Dedria Humphries Barker, of Lansing, chairs The Andrew and Mary Jane Humphries Foundation, and authored “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man’s Widow” (New York: 2Leaf Press, 20202). Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of every month in City Pulse.)

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