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Michigan Taxpayers Should Ask What They Got for Their Money

Ohanian Comment: Michigan residents should think about what could have been done with $15.6 million--besides administering and distributing the MEAP. And that's only money. What about the distortion and degredation of the curriculum? What about children's misery? What about the teachers who have left the profession because they refuse to participate in the state-mandated harm of children?

Michigan taxpayers have shelled out millions of dollars to test students and identify struggling schools.

What did they get for their money? A complicated system that has had multiple problems and delays, making the data almost useless for educators and parents -- and all in the midst of a state budget crisis that likely will lead to cuts in school funding.

Education Yes! is Michigan's rating system to give schools letter grades from A to failing for everything from MEAP scores to teacher quality.

The report cards were supposed to go to elementary and middle schools early this year. They were delayed until August and then finally went out in October. But more than 1,200 schools have filed appeals, saying the scores are wrong.

The report cards were to be sent to parents in August and have been delayed again, until Jan. 30, to correct the data.

Diane Smith doesn't need a report card to know the school her son now attends -- Leggett Elementary School in Waterford -- surpasses the Pontiac school he attended last year. But she'd still like to see the school's grades.

"I would like to see it, just like every parent would like to see a report card on their child," Smith said. "You want to see how your school is doing academically."

But not seeing the report cards until January makes it too late for parents who may want to look for better schools for their children this year.

"They're not going to be able to do anything about it until next year," Smith said.

Michigan contracted with Enterprise Computing Services of Woodstock, Ga., for $1.6 million to create a database that would link student scores to demographic data and to create bar codes for test booklets -- a system to identify students and used for the report cards. It cost an additional $1.1 million to issue the report cards to schools.

A major component of the report cards is data from the MEAP, which cost $15.6 million to administer and distribute. The MEAP tests also have been a headache. Scores were several months late; some tests are missing, and the number of students who took the tests was inaccurate in some cases.

Merging data creates problems
The report card plan has been on the drawing board since 2001. But in 2002, one year before the reports cards were to debut, the federal No Child Left Behind law went into effect, placing more requirements on schools.

The state's solution was to meld the state report cards with the federal requirements. The result is a report card that uses data from different sources, including the MEAP, to rank elementary and middle schools in 19 categories, including family involvement, teacher quality, extended-learning opportunities, staff training and student attendance, among other things.

Getting all that data straight has led to a series of time-consuming computer glitches.

The worst problem was merging the database containing all the school and student demographic data with the MEAP test database. A system of bar codes was supposed to match students to the right test and demographic information. But the bar codes didn't always work, said Jeremy Hughes, chief academic officer with the state Department of Education.

Many of those errors are the basis of the 1,200 appeals the state is now sorting through. And the number will grow once Detroit Public Schools files its appeals.

State Superintendent Tom Watkins said the Education Department has yet to analyze the costs associated with the delays and appeals. He says there won't be additional costs, though employees are working night and day to resolve the appeals.

State Rep. Brian Palmer, R-Romeo, said the Legislature isn't expecting additional costs, particularly in a year when the state is grappling with a $920-million deficit. "I'm not sure how they're going to do it, but he has to work within the staff he has and get it done," Palmer said, referring to Watkins. But if problems persist, "there will be costs and we will somehow have to accommodate that."

Frustration grips lawmakers
The Treasury and Education departments are largely responsible for the report card fiasco, said Holland Republican Sen. Wayne Kuipers, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Kuipers held a series of hearings in September on the delays in MEAP scores.

Until recently, the Treasury Department administered the MEAP test. It is now the responsibility of the Education Department.

Both departments "had not identified any one person who was a go-to person to ensure the test and test functions were occurring on time and under budget," Kuipers said. The Education Department has since named a new MEAP leader.

State Superintendent Watkins would not address the blame issue. "I don't point fingers. I don't cast blame. My focus is on solving problems," Watkins said.

"This basically has to be written off as a trial run," said David Plank, codirector of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. "Unfortunately, it won't be, because there are real consequences attached."

The frustration has reached the Michigan Legislature, where it is prompting another effort to give the governor more control over the Education Department.

He and other key legislators are planning to introduce a resolution in January that would have the state superintendent appointed by the governor instead of the state Board of Education. Voters would have to approve such a move, because it would change the Michigan Constitution.

"The buck will stop with the governor. You have a person to hold accountable," Kuipers said.

Watkins said it doesn't matter whether he reports to the board or the governor. "My greater accountability is to the children of the state of Michigan," he said. "That's where I continue to keep my focus."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm isn't likely to support the proposed change, said her spokeswoman, Liz Boyd.

"We see no reason to alter the constitution to change that relationship," Boyd said. But the governor is open to looking at changes in the MEAP or other changes to make the system more efficient.

In the end, it isn't just the delays and the costs that are hurting schools, said Ernie Bauer, consultant at Oakland Schools, the county's intermediate school district.

"The big problems have been all the time and energy people in local districts have had to spend verifying information that should have been correct in the first place," Bauer said.

— Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki and Lori Higgins
Report card errors come at hefty price
Detroit Free Press


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