LANSING, Mich. (MIRS News) – A Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) bill eliminating the A through F grading system for school quality was centerstage Tuesday at the House Education Committee, where Department of Education officials said the letter grades are partially duplicative of a federal system, but don’t hold up to federal standards.

The A through F ranking system was originally adopted during lame duck 2018 on a Republican party-line vote, 56-53, and criticism at the time from Democrats was that the model created a negative stigma for poor-performing schools.

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The system has since run for four cycles, with partial results in 2019-20 and 2020-21 due to the pandemic, but Department of Education critics now say the letter grade rankings are duplicative of the School Index System for Accountability, a federal standard created through the Every Student Success Act (ESSA).

Sue Carnell, chief deputy superintendent of the state Department of Education (MDE), said though the letter grading system was intended as a replacement for the federally implemented version, it was legislated without a review of alignment to federal ESSA requirements.

The state system ranks schools based on eight categories: student proficiency, student growth, graduation rates, English learner progress, performance among peers, student subgroup performance, on-track attendance and assessments.

Scores between A and F are released on Sept. 1 of each year, and accountability measures are then implemented for the bottom 5% of ranked schools.

Carnell said the federal system uses those components, including student growth, student proficiency, graduation rates, English learner progress and participation, but also takes into account subcategories in chronic absenteeism, access to arts and physical education, advanced coursework, post-secondary enrollment and access to a library or librarian.

Carnell testified with the MDE office of Educational Assessment and Accountability’s Assistant Director Chris Janzer. The pair shared a list of additional differences between the two systems that included exemptions and designations.

Under the letter grade system, certain schools are exempt from being labelled and ranked, including strict discipline academies and schools that serve specialized student populations, called Alternative Education Campuses. Approximately 300 schools in Michigan, or around 10% of schools, are listed as AECs.

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The A through F model also exempts students with disabilities from testing requirements, which Carnell said is a violation of federal law.

ESSA, however, requires all public schools to be included in the system, though the federal requirement allows English learner students in their first year of U.S. public school to skip a state ELA assessment.

According to MDE data, federal rankings through ESSA identified 218 schools that were not also identified through the A through F system.

As a result, Koleszar said he introduced HB 4166 to repeal the letter grade ranking system and stick with the federally established model, which he said will help eliminate confusion for parents trying to evaluate a potential school.

“When there are two systems,” he said, “the one that does not meet federal standards is the one that should be repealed.”

In addition to removing the letter ranking system, Koleszar’s bill would remove requirements that districts and charter school authorizers not reopen a school at the same location as a school previously designated as low-performing without making changes to leadership or performance.

During testimony, concern arose from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies and Dan Quisenberry that the system shouldn’t be slashed without having a state-codified replacement, and that eliminating the current system now could lead to more confusion later.

Though the Association took a neutral position on the bill, Quisenberry said it’s necessary to work through all the complicated moving parts of the current system to create a system that’s clear for parents.

Koleszar said that having two systems giving contradictory information is “inherently even more confusing.”

The bill was opposed through testimony by Lindsay Case Palsrok with the Business Leaders of Michigan, Nate Henschel with the Grand Rapids Chamber and Brad William with the Detroit Regional Chamber.

In a press release sent out following testimony, Great Lakes Education Project Executive Director Beth DeShone said repealing the legislation is a move against transparency and could be a way to hide school performance reports from Michigan parents.

“Let’s be very clear about this. HB 4166 is anti-transparency legislation,” she said. “It’s a push to sweep learning loss under the rug, and kids along with it.

DeShone said the bill would kill transparency requirements designed to inform parents and policymakers, disproportionately punishing students in schools that struggle the most.

The bill was supported with testimony from Matthew Schueller of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, Lou Steigerwald, representing the Superintendent at Norway-Vulcan Area Schools, along with cards in support from the Department of Education, Detroit Public Schools Community District, Macomb ISD, the Education Advocates of West Michigan, the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity, the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, Oakland Schools and the Michigan Education Association.

The bill awaits further action in the House Education Committee.