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Michigan bills would de-emphasize test scores to account for pandemic disruptions

The Michigan state Capitol building in Lansing on a sunny day with wispy clouds.

Michigan lawmakers have proposed bills to temporarily restrict the use of standardized test scores to evaluate educators, rate schools, and determine whether poor readers should repeat third grade.

Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Standardized test scores wouldn’t be a factor this year in educator evaluations or decisions about whether third-graders can move up to fourth grade, under proposed legislation to loosen state education requirements to account for disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposals introduced last week recognize the pandemic’s effect on instruction over the past two years, and the stresses of switching between remote and in-person learning as waves of COVID infections forced building closures and quarantines. Those disruptions are becoming less frequent, but the effects of the chaotic 2020-21 school year are lasting, said state Rep. Lori Stone, and students and educators shouldn’t be punished for them.

 

“Students didn’t get to choose the circumstances of their education for the last couple of years. Teachers and administrators didn’t get to choose those circumstances, either,” said Stone, a Warren Democrat who is shepherding a package of bills that would waive what she views as punitive measures. “We need to show grace around education.”

Under current law, results of standardized tests have important consequences. For teachers and administrators, student scores weigh heavily in teacher evaluations, which are used in decisions about tenure, staff reductions, reassignments, and promotions. For students, they influence whether they receive extra help or, in the case of Michigan third-graders, whether they have to repeat a grade. 

The bills have several Democratic co-sponsors. Only one Republican, Rep. Bronna Kahle of Adrian, is on board, and only for the legislation waiving test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations. She is the primary sponsor of that measure. 

Sponsors will need more GOP support for the legislation to advance in the Republican-controlled House. They say they’re optimistic it will come.

“We’re not all the way there yet, but I think we can make some headway,” said state Rep. Brenda Carter, a Pontiac Democrat. “The pandemic hit every child. It caused mental anguish throughout the whole education community.”

The proposals reflect concerns that holding teachers accountable for test scores after a tumultuous two years adds a layer of stress for teachers already feeling burned out by the challenges of the pandemic.

“It seems shortsighted to enact punitive measures for our third-graders, for our teachers, and for our administrators when we know instructional practices didn’t necessarily follow typical expectations,” Stone said. “They had to adjust on the fly in [difficult] conditions and we want to hold them to the same expectations?” Stone asked. 

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said he opposes the bills, calling test scores an important, objective accountability measure. 

Standards might not be the same in a pandemic year than a typical one, DeGrow said, but people can view the scores in the context of the pandemic and make their judgements accordingly.

Five bills are under consideration:

  • House Bill 5991 would exempt this year’s third-graders from the Read by Grade Three law, which says children cannot advance to fourth grade unless they read on at least a second-grade level or receive an exemption from their superintendent.
  • House Bills 5992, 5993, and 5051 would temporarily waive a requirement that districts consider student test scores in end-of-year evaluations of teachers and administrators. Normally, at least 40% of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on academic growth students demonstrate on standardized tests. Under the bill, evaluations would be based on other criteria such as performance goals, instructional improvement, and classroom observations.
  • A fifth bill in the package would temporarily waive a requirement that the Michigan Department of Education assign schools annual letter grades, from A to F, to help identify and improve struggling schools. A controversial 2018 law calls for letter grades based on student proficiency, academic growth, graduation rates, progress of English language learners, and performance compared with schools with similar demographics.

Michigan wouldn’t be the first state to loosen testing requirements this year. Florida, for example, waived a graduation requirement that high school seniors pass standardized tests in English and math.

MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa said the department has no official position on the five bills, but state Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice, in general, said he agrees with the premise of giving a grace year.

The American Federation of Teachers Michigan supports the legislation.

 

“Given COVID, while we are getting back to usual operations, we have not been there for the full year,” union spokesman David Hecker said in an email message. “Educators have gone above and beyond during the COVID years.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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