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Michigan Schools Give Selves A's, Avert Failure

Many of Michigan’s chronically failing schools gave themselves the highest possible marks on state report cards, saving themselves from a D or a flunking grade that would have brought their students more state oversight and assistance.

Schools in Utica, Pontiac, Detroit and Wayne-Westland were among the 76 percent of troubled schools statewide that gave themselves A’s on a self-evaluation that was worth a third of their grades in report cards issued last week.

All of those schools have failed to meet federal standards on test scores for at least four years.

Although a high self-review could be a school’s honest assessment, the potential of inflated grades erodes the credibility of the state’s report card and could keep some students from needed state help, some educators and parents say.

“All these principals should be ashamed,” said Charity Hicks, who has two daughters at Detroit’s Fleming Elementary, which got two D’s for its test scores, gave itself an A on the self-evaluation, resulting in a C overall. “It’s not realistic.”

The self-evaluations measured 11 factors, such as how well the schools reach out to parents, their building’s condition and how well they prepare their teachers.

It didn’t ask schools about test scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, or MEAP. The rest of the state’s grade was based on MEAP scores.

Fleming is one of 82 Detroit schools that failed national standards for improvement for at least four years. But each of those schools gave themselves an A, ensuring that none flunked on the state report card.

Moreover, because all but one Detroit school gave themselves an A, none of the city’s 250-plus schools failed.

Detroit isn’t alone.

Two schools in Utica also escaped a low grade with a high self-evaluation. Davis Junior High got a C and F for its test scores and gave itself an A to bring its overall mark to a C.

But the school hasn’t met the federal standards on test scores for five years. It failed this year because students with disabilities didn’t score high enough in math.

While district officials in Utica and Detroit maintained that the evaluations were fair, the self-assessments didn’t make sense to some parents.

“I can understand if they (gave themselves) a grade a little closer to the other grades they got,” said Debbie Kinsel of Sterling Heights, whose eighth-grade daughter Jackie goes to Utica’s Davis. “But to give themselves an A? I don’t think they should be able to do that. There is always room for improvement.”

System started in ‘02

The results of the state’s first report card on schools have been widely anticipated since education officials initially approved the system in March 2002. Among the program’s goals: give parents a way to compare schools using more than just test scores and identify those buildings that need the most help.

Those that receive a grade of D or that were labeled unaccredited, which is essentially an F, will get more attention from the 17-person staff of the school improvement department in Lansing. Those staffers work with the local intermediate school districts to come up with plans to improve the schools.

Michigan’s school code requires every school to be accredited or certified by the state. Schools that lose their accreditation face no penalties, but face increased scrutiny to become accredited.

State Superintendent Tom Watkins admits the high grades schools give themselves may keep them from a failing grade and extra state attention.

But he doubts his department would have the resources even if more schools were added to the watch list. Nine schools statewide are unaccredited and 94 others received a D.

“We have more schools than we have resources or the time,” Watkins said. “It’s the best we can do with what we’ve got.”

Watkins said parents need to police their schools to make sure they are truthful in the self-review they provide to the state.

“To me it’s all a part of putting the public back in public education,” he said. “With 3,500 schools, I don’t have the performance indicator police. We are never going to have enough staff to do that.”

Too subjective?

Experts say the self-evaluation process is too subjective.

“The credibility of the entire system is really shaky,” said David Plank, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

Plank said some of the indicators require straightforward answers. Others, such as parental involvement, are simply not measurable.

He said one school might have given itself high marks for simply having a school newsletter while another might have looked exclusively at parent involvement in parent-teacher conferences.

“This is an obvious problem with self-reporting,” Plank said. “You’re sort of trusting educators to give you an honest accounting on these with no mechanism for the state to confirm whether or not the reports are accurate.”

Plank said the self-reported grades clearly look like strategic reporting.

“Whether the schools decided it on their own or the district decided it, it’s clearly a good strategy for boosting your (overall) grade,” Plank said.

Schools still defend their evaluations.

“When you do a self evaluation, that’s what it means,” said Detroit’s spokesman Mario Morrow, who added that administrators are facing pressures of new standards and fewer resources. “A lot of schools feel they are doing an excellent job. I am not one to tell them they aren’t.”

Pontiac school officials insist their self-grades were accurate even at schools that had low MEAP scores for four and five straight years.

“We were very diligent,” said Joscelyn Andrews, a spokeswoman for the 11,500-student district. “I sent a directive to all of our executive staff and we went over the questions. I know we were painstaking.”

High grades common

Most schools statewide graded themselves as a A or B, Watkins said.

Taft-Galloway Elementary School in the Wayne-Westland school system got an F and a D on test scores and gave itself an A, bumping its overall grade to a C.

But not every school gave itself high marks.

Hamtramck and Highland Park schools were tougher on themselves in their self-evaluations.

Three Hamtramck schools, which failed federal standards for five years because scores weren’t high enough, gave themselves Ds.

“We tried to be honest maybe that’s part of our fault,” said Tom Trawick, principal at Kosciuszko School. “We understand where we are at and we are trying to do something about it.”

Schools need an impartial look at how they are performing, said Highland Park Superintendent Theresa Saunders.

“If you are looking at yourself, you can miss things,” said Saunders, who doesn’t think the state’s grading system works.

“It can be hard to face some realities. That’s the nature of human beings, to think we are making it when we are not.”

Saunders and five of her six principals are new to the district this year, so she said they were able to evaluate the school objectively.

The district’s Barber Focus School of Mathematics, Science and Technology gave itself a D and Cortland Academy of Integrated Learning gave itself an F.

Combined with the grades for their test scores, the state said both schools would be unaccredited.

Saunders said she’s already taken steps to improve the schools, but any help from the state will be welcomed.

She feels schools that escaped the flunking and D grades with high self-evaluations are missing out.

“The more eyes you have looking in at the process is helpful,” Saunders said.

Parental input urged

Utica’s spokeswoman Hildy Corbett said her district will take a close look at all the scores to study ways to improve.

But she said that because this is the first year of the grading system, it’s too early to explain the discrepancy between the school’s self-scores and their grades from test scores.

The self-grading portion could be debated at upcoming state focus groups aimed at evaluating how the grades worked in the first year.

Hicks, whose daughters attend Detroit’s Fleming, said she likes that the grading system doesn’t only evaluate schools on test scores.

But she’d like parents to have a say.

“The principals can give them an A, but what do parents say?” Hicks said. “Parents, taxpayers, the actual client should rate the schools. I’d love to have a say.”
Self-assessment categories

Schools were asked to grade themselves on 11 "indicators of school performance" which accounted for one-third of their state grade issued last week. The indicators were:

Family involvement

Student attendance and dropout rates

Teacher quality and professional development

Curriculum alignment

Extended learning opportunities

Arts and humanities programs

Advanced coursework

School facilities

Performance management systems to determine if children have gained critical skills

Continuous improvement programs

Four-year education and employment plan for students after graduations

To find out more, go to Michigan Department of Education's school report card Web site.

You can reach Christine MacDonald at (313) 222-2269 or cmacdonald@detnews.com.

— Christine MacDonald and Maureen Feighan
Michigan Schools Give Selves A's, Avert Failure
Detroit News


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