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Feds Label Top Michigan Schools Failures

Ohanian Comment: The headline on this article is Top metro schools are labeled failures. The sub-head nails it, helping people see that it's the feds who are bringing failure: Award-winners fall short of federal standards.

Three Detroit schools are state Golden Apple award winners.

A Southfield school was hailed as a model by President George W. Bush.

Other schools across Michigan received National Blue Ribbon awards.

And others in some of the state's wealthiest districts are considered first-class high schools.

What do they have in common?

None met federal guidelines for showing adequate yearly progress on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, or MEAP.

Some high-achieving schools even received "F" grades on their school report cards, released late last month by the Michigan Department of Education, because their high scores aren't improving fast enough.

"This just illustrates once more the fragility of the evaluation system," said David Plank, codirector of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

"Very small changes in test scores for very small numbers of students could cause a school to go up or down," Plank said.

Fleming Elementary School in Detroit won a Golden Apple Award in 2002, one of 124 Michigan schools that got the honor for most improved MEAP scores.

Yet, the school didn't meet the federal goals. And its report card indicates it has failed to meet the goals for five years, meaning it must undergo a restructuring.

State Superintendent Tom Watkins said this is one of the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that has ushered in sweeping accountability measures for public schools.

There are 50 ways a school can fail to meet the federal rules, Watkins said, thus the contradictions.

Fleming wasn't alone. Two other Detroit schools -- John Marshall and Parker elementaries -- and 17 more statewide won Golden Apples in 2002 and now are considered in need of improvement, according to the Michigan Information and Research Service.

In addition, four Michigan schools that have won coveted national Blue Ribbon awards in recent years are on the list. The honor is the highest a U.S. school can receive.

Some of the Golden Apple winners are on the list because even though their scores are on an upward trend, not enough of their students are passing the MEAP.

Some schools made the list because certain groups -- racial minorities, kids from low-income households, students learning English and special-education students -- didn't pass the test.

And others -- some award-winners, some not -- are on the list simply because they didn't have 95 percent of their students take the test.

Are they failures?

No, said Fred Cromie, principal at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, and Todd Robinson, principal at Avondale Middle School in Rochester Hills.

Both schools didn't meet the federal guidelines, but the reason had nothing to do with MEAP scores. Neither met the 95-percent rule.

In fact, 268 of the 896 Michigan schools that didn't meet the federal standards failed to do so because of that rule. That includes most high schools in metro Detroit.

"It's frustrating that people who don't know Avondale High School may draw a perception about it based on what they read," Cromie said.

What's more frustrating is nearly 88 percent of Avondale High students took the test, one of the highest participation rates for a Michigan high school. The middle school missed the cutoff by 2.4 percent, the equivalent of three or four students.

Avondale Middle won the national Blue Ribbon award in 2002 but didn't meet the federal standards in 2003.

"Does this now discredit the fact that two years ago we were a national exemplary school? I think not," Robinson said.

But the perception -- particularly to people with no direct connection to the schools -- could be difficult to overcome.

"The reality is that memories are short," Plank said. "The fact that you got" an award "two years ago hardly enters people's thoughts when they see the school is faced with a restructuring."

Many remember Bush's 2002 visit to Vandenberg Elementary School in Southfield, a school that saw dramatic improvement in its MEAP scores. At the time, Bush said the school "is not afraid of accountability and as a result, is excelling."

The school's state report card was strong, with two A's and a B. But the school didn't have adequate yearly progress, because it didn't have a 95-percent MEAP participation rate.

Ken Siver, the district's spokesman, was reluctant to talk about the school, because many have seen its status as evidence that something went wrong there.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Oh, your district has that school that Bush went to and said was so good, and it really isn't,' " Siver said.

Because the 95-percent rule is affecting so many schools, particularly at the secondary level, the state likely will consider making it mandatory for high school students to take the MEAP in order to graduate, Watkins said.

Some districts already are planning to make it difficult for high school students to skip the MEAP when it's given in April.

"We will have all of the students who are capable of taking the test, take the test," said Bob Greene of the Troy School District.

There also might be some tweaking of the formulas that force the state to give some schools an F because their scores aren't increasing fast enough.

But one thing won't change, Watkins said: "They still have to grow."

Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-351-3694 or higgins@freepress.com.

— Lori Higgins
Top metro schools are labeled failures
Detroit Free Press


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