New Study: Michigan’s High-Income, White Students “Sinking in Academic Achievement”
by P.D. Lesko
In Ann Arbor, it’s the achievement gap that gets the starring role in the ongoing drama enacted on a regular basis by both members of the Board of Education, as well as the District’s paid professionals. This is a drama that has been playing for, literally, the past decade. There is nary a hand unwrung among those who set policy concerning the fact that Ann Arbor’s school district still has one of the most pronounced academic achievement gaps between white students and non-white students.
True to form, Patricia Green, the District’s new superintendent pulled the achievement gap card out of her hand and played it at a recent Board of Education meeting. At the December 11, 2011 BOE meeting, Green was reported to have said she “came to Ann Arbor to eliminate the achievement gap.” Superintendent Patricia Green evidently missed the class in graduate school where one learns that it’s infinitely better to under-promise and over-deliver. In 12-18 months, when MEAP scores show that the District’s achievement gap has not been eliminated, or even significantly ameliorated, I would not want to be in her size 9 Manolo Blahnik cowgirl boots.
A parent at the meeting, no doubt, might have muttered that Green came to Ann Arbor because of the $245,000 salary offered her. It’s a salary befitting a superintendent with a District significantly larger than Ann Arbor’s. According to Jay P. Goldman, editor of The School Administrator, superintendents in the Midwest average $180,000 per year, as do superintendents in districts with between 10,000-24,999 students (AAPS enrollment is around 16,000). Green’s salary would be more appropriate for a sup. who oversaw a school district of 25,000 students or more. Be that as it may, Green actually stood up in public and said she can and will “eliminate the achievement gap”—a gap that has grown significantly now that Michigan’s State Board of Education decided to finally stop soft-peddling the fact that Michigan’s schools are failing to rigorously educate the majority of the state’s students in science, math and reading.
In 2011, the State Board of Education raised what are referred to in the ed biz as “cut scores” on the MEAP tests to better align with the expectations students will face in college and the workplace. James David Dickson, the K-12 news hound at the Heritage newspaper A2Journal, in an excellent write-up of the meeting, described the change thusly: “It’s not that students are doing worse, but that standards have risen, as the result of a vote from the State Board of Education raising the bar on two standardized exams the state administers to gauge student proficiency.”
Um, not quite. By that logic, easier test=more proficient students, and more rigorous test=still proficient students forced to take a more difficult test. In essence, like fading starlet Norma Desmond from the film “Sunset Boulevard,” it’s “the pictures that got small.” The test is “dropping scores?” Well, no, students are doing poorly on a test designed to meet more rigorous standards of proficiency. Student preparation and proficiency are lacking, in some cases, virtually absent in the face of a more rigorous measurement of proficiency vis a vis national and international standards.
The more rigorous state standards revealed that only 40 percent of our fourth-grade students met expectations for math on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, which contrasts sharply with the 92 percent of fourth-graders who met or exceeded the previous year’s cut scores for the subject. For you educational measurement mavens out there, here are some more data. Today, Michigan’s cut scores more closely mirror proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In eighth-grade math, we see 29 percent proficiency on the MEAP and 31 percent proficiency on the NAEP.
When the cut scores were “realigned,” i.e. raised, Ann Arbor Public Schools went into damage control mode. Parents received emails, as well as snail mail letters from the new superintendent concerning the impending doom and gloom news that children of rich, white parents in the District, as well as children of non-white parents could expect to get MEAP test results that were significantly lower than the results of previous years. Johnny and Janey, you see, had really not been exceeding expectations. The cut scores had been artificially manipulated to make it appear that children were reading and doing math more proficiently than other children in their classes and in the District.
Under the new regime whereby student proficiency is measured using more rigorous standards, Ann Arbor’s proficiency rate dropped from 98 to 60 percent. The overall proficiency rates of the District’s Black students plummeted from 94 percent to 22 percent. The AAPS achievement gap between Black students and all others skyrocketed from 4 percent to 38 percent. Hispanic third graders, 91 percent of whom who had tested proficient, saw that group’s overall proficiency rate fall to 34 percent, and the gap between Hispanics and the district average rose from 7 percent to 26 percent. It was after the MEAP scores hit Ann Arbor mailboxes in 2011 that Green told the BOE and public that there was a new Sheriff in town who was “a’ fixin’ ta ‘eliminate’ that there edjakasional cheevement gap, Pardner.”
The proverbial shitzu hit the fan in the stylishly decorated offices of those AAPS administrators who are paid six-figure salaries to wring their hands over such troubling revelations.
Well, as if realigning the MEAP cut scores wasn’t a big enough blow to District officials, Education Trust- Midwest released the results of a study today that show Michigan students are not keeping pace with the rest of the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Remember, the new MEAP “cut scores” were adjusted to align with those of the more rigorous NEAP exam. More bad news for non-white students? Here’s where it gets interesting, and why, finally, state and local officials may just get some serious heat concerning student achievement gaps. The Education Trust-Midwest study concludes the educational achievement of white and higher-income students in Michigan is lagging behind that of peers in other states.
The Freep reported today that: “White and higher-income students in Michigan have seen dramatic declines in their rankings on a tough national exam, a report released today shows. The plummeting rankings don’t necessarily mean their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam have dropped significantly — but they’re an indication that Michigan students aren’t keeping pace with students in many other states that are posting improvements.”
Amber Arellano is the executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based nonpartisan education policy and research organization. She summed up the results of the study succinctly: ”In the other states, student achievement is outpacing us. We’re remaining about the same.”
Now, we have The Tale of Two Achievement Gaps—one for the Blacks and one for the Whites. The new study just knee-capped Ann Arbor District officials who have, for years, blamed the persistent achievement gap on race and socio-economics. According to the Education Trust-Michigan study, “Michigan’s underperformance transcends our communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Compared with other states, white and higher income students here also are sinking in academic achievement.” So if the state’s black, white, rich, poor, blue, green and jasper-colored students are not able to meet rigorous education standards applied by other states and countries, what needs to change?
Again, from the study: “The conventional wisdom in Michigan holds low-income, and black and brown children responsible for our state’s low averages….Michigan’s students are falling behind their peers across the nation because their schools are not preparing them for success. Even as parents must recommit to helping their children succeed in school, state political and education leaders must offer the leadership and resources needed to turn around student performance.”
So what does the study suggest as remedies to the academic achievement woes in the state of Michigan? Hold on to your backpacks; this is where politics meets education. Key recommendations by Education-Trust Michigan include:
1. Support and Provide Honest Feedback to Our Teachers
“The state’s new teacher tenure and evaluation legislation, passed in June 2011, now makes it possible for schools to conduct evaluations that help them understand which of their teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement and which do not.”
2. Set High Expectations for Curriculum, Instruction, and Achievement
“Michigan has taken an important step toward establishing more rigorous curricular standards for its students by agreeing to adopt the Common Core State Standards, which aim to better prepare the nation’s students for college and career.”
3. Improve Low-Performing Schools Across the State
“Key among these building blocks is a teacher evaluation system so leaders can intelligently and fairly staff schools based on performance data, rather than only seniority. State standards around evaluation will help ensure leaders can recruit high-performing teachers and principals….”
4. Establish Strong Support and Accountability Systems
“Last fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered states a chance to waive many requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for developing an educator evaluation system tied to student learning, adopting standards aligned to college and career readiness, and implementing a new accountability system with ambitious but achievable goals for all schools.
This rare opportunity gives Michigan a chance to abandon systems that have not worked and create new ones that are more likely to make a difference for Michigan’s students.
To their credit, Michigan leaders are working hard to seize this opportunity, but there are obstacles that stand in the way. To gain a waiver from Sec. Duncan, for example, the state will have to stand up to challenges to tying student learning to teacher evaluations. It’s vital that Michigan continue down the path set by the teacher tenure and evaluation legislation. We must know how our teachers are performing so that the best educators can be recruited to serve the students who most need them.”
At her February 2011 interview open to the public, Green told those present she was committed to “working with the district’s strategic plan.” She went on to say, “I focus like a laser beam on that strategic plan,” she said. “It doesn’t just sit on a shelf. It lives and breathes. I align the budget to it and I make certain that if something is important enough to be in the strategic plan then it must come to life.”
The District’s current Strategic Plan ends in 2012. In it, there is no mention of closing the District’s “achievement gap,” or even the phrase “achievement gap.” To see what the Strategic Plan focuses on, see the Word Cloud above, where “staff” is mentioned more often than “achievement” (which is too tiny to see in the Word Cloud).
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