Debates persist on best way to assess schools

By LAINA STEBBINS

Capital News Service

LANSING — What’s the best way to measure school performance?

Standardized testing? Which tests? How often?

Michigan is awash in contentious disputes over whether to repeal the basis for its standardized tests (Michigan’s Common Core standards), questions about the Common Core-based testing system, threats to close low-performing schools, the possibility of cuts in federal education funding and debates about the very effectiveness of statewide standardized testing

Education experts remain at odds over what educational success in Michigan would look like, how to best measure that success and how to achieve it.

Tim Webster, superintendent of Reed City Area Schools, said there needs to be better consensus on testing policies and priorities about which assessments schools should focus on.

Webster points to one instance in which his teachers had been focusing most efforts on preparing Reed City students for one national test, only to have their M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) results posted online instead. The state took their M-STEP scores, rather the scores from the test they had prioritized, as primary indicators of their school system’s proficiency.

As a result of his district prioritizing the wrong test, the results showed them scoring as “one of the lowest schools in the intermediate school district,”  Webster said. “We looked bad.”

At the same time, the Michigan school “report card” published earlier this year ranked Webster’s district as “yellow,” with an 80 percent overall score – the highest among neighboring districts.

Bill DiSessa, a communications specialist for the state Education Department, agrees that the state has work to do on clarifying expectations and measuring results.

An important component of that work, DiSessa said, is the implementation of the department’s “Top 10 in 10” plan, with strategies and recommendations aimed at making Michigan a top-ranked state in a decade.

Among the recommendations DiSessa highlighted are changes to statewide testing.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston wants to improve the testing system by first reducing the use of the M-STEP – the Common Core-aligned statewide examination – so it is administered to only one elementary-level grade and one middle school-level grade each year, DiSessa said.

Whiston then wants to implement a new system that would act as a benchmark measure of student growth, testing at least at the beginning and end of each school year in order to more accurately measure student growth over the course of the year.

Because that would provide parents and educators with a better idea of how a student is doing, districts could more quickly identify students’ areas of progress as well as identify ones who are struggling so intervention can happen sooner.

While not everyone supports standardized testing as the best way to assess student and school performance, DiSessa said, “There needs to be some measure of growth.”

But it’s the details that are causing the debate.

Webster said he agrees with Whiston that schools should adopt tests that measure student learning growth. But he said he “has zero confidence” in the M-STEP assessment, which does not measure growth.

How we’re tested is terribly important,” said Webster, adding that he believes there is not enough educator input in the realm of education policy that ultimately affects types of assessments.