SCHOOL BEAT — February 10, 2011

Michigan schools lying?

by RANDALL C. SELLHORN
Trustee, Board of Education

On Thursday, Jan. 12, the Grand Rapids Press front page headline which read “Michigan schools-lying to parents? Report blasts state for hiding behind standards lower than nationally accepted” was a bit of a shock to me and, I am certain, to others. Lying? The Press reported that a “long established and well respected” Washington, D.C. education advocacy group had released a report that indicates the standard used to determine proficiency on the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students was below the standard used in the National Assessment of Education Progress 2009 (NAEP). The report also accuses the Michigan Education Department of having lowered the standards for proficiency on the MEAP. If you missed it, you could probably find it on MLive.

This may shock you, but I really don’t care about the Michigan Education Department having lowered the MEAP cut score for proficiency or using a different standard for proficiency than the NAEP. Surprised? Read on. I will try in this short space to explain to you why you shouldn’t be concerned either.

The Press article and subsequently the Education Trust–Midwest’s report doesn’t make any statement about the Michigan Merit Curriculum learning objectives for students.

The Michigan Merit Curriculum is the learning objectives for high school graduation. They only take issue with the achievement levels required for a student to be rated “proficient.” First we all have to make the assumption that the learning objectives for the MEAP and the NAEP are similar if not the same. Don’t know that, but to accept the report’s premise you need to.

That fourth- and eighth-grades cut score for proficiency is being questioned and not for any other grade is puzzling. One could assume all other grades’ MEAP cut scores are adequate and similar to the NAEP cut scores? I have friends at my work that are actuaries skilled in statistical measure that will say, “Are you using statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post? Are you leaning on statistical evidence for support or are you using statistics for illumination?” It is our work jargon for saying, “Have you selected one item of statistical evidence to support your position and ignoring the big picture here?” Has Education Trust-Midwest selected the one differential that most supports the headline? Or is this difference really a leading indication of student performance? We don’t know do we? But the Press is comfortable with inferring that schools are lying to parents in the headline.

MEAP is one and only one of the many assessments we use in Rockford schools to determine each student’s academic success. It is the ONLY standardized test given to ALL Michigan students that we can use to compare our academic achievement with other peer groups. The results are reported back to the school district FOR EACH STUDENT, providing a useful tool to evaluate student progress, provide areas of needed additional instruction for that student and identify areas where our instruction for specific learning objectives could be improved in all classes. There is no other test given to ALL Michigan students. Rockford students accomplishing a rating of “proficient” are not adequate to meet the expectation we have for our children.

We want our students to demonstrate mastery of the subject content. We are a high-expectation, high-results academic organization. If the Michigan Education Department lowered the bar so other students could accomplish proficiency, it is of little concern. We are aiming for a higher bar. All students don’t always get there, but that is our goal.

Rockford has occasionally participated in the NAEP at the request of the U.S. Department of Education by giving their test to a class, as in ONE CLASS, for certain grade levels. We have NEVER received results for a single student. As a result, we are unable to use this testing process to improve instruction and learning for these students. NAEP insists that specific individuals and participating schools be kept anonymous. If you would like to check my statement, take a look at nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/. It’s the website for the NAEP. You can even create your own reports from the data they make available publicly.

So if proficiency is less than our stated student performance expectation of mastery, it matters not that the Michigan Department of Education lowered the proficiency cut score for fourth- and eighth-grade students. And if one standardized test (MEAP) provides individual results for EVERY Michigan student that can be used for improving instruction and guiding a student’s academic performance and the other (NAEP) doesn’t, which do you think is most useful to our teachers and students?

MEAP isn’t the greatest because of the politics that surround it, but it is one tool we can use to measure academic progress along a 12- or 13-year education process.

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