STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Michigan embarks on a new goal: Only leave 15 percent of children behind.
The latest results from Michigan's School Report Card show just how many kids are being left behind.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Education released its first state-wide report card on school progress since the state won a new waiver on requirements No Child Left Behind law. 

If you haven't been following the news, you might wonder why Michigan needed a waiverfrom No Child Left Behind in the first place. There are lots of reasons, really. But the most basic reason has to do with a requirement at the core of the act. 

The requirement says that all students must be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. It was an ambitious goal when NCLB passed in 2001. Now, it's downright unachievable. So, basically every state in the country is trying to get a waiver from this requirement. Put bluntly, they're asking for permission to leave some children behind. 

So far, 32 states and the District of Columbia have gotten that permission. 

It didn't come easy. The Obama administration asked for some major reforms before it agreed to the waivers. Michigan's proposal alone comes in at over 430 pages. 

One of the big changes comes in how the state defines "proficiency." Under the old system, there was an incentive for states to set the bar low. They had to get to 100 percent proficiency, after all. But now, Michigan has set the bar much higher. 

The results are clear in the new statewide report card. Under the new standards, just 34 percent of students in grades three through eight are proficient in math and reading. Less than 18 percent of high school juniors met the proficiency threshold on the Michigan Merit Exam. 

The new goal is to get those proficiency numbers up to 85 percent by 2021-2022. 

In its waiver application to the federal government, the Michigan Department of Education admitted that "very few schools" have achieved 85 percent proficiency in any content area. The MDE wrote: 

... we have wrestled extensively with the question of identifying targets that are appropriately ambitious and also attainable. One concern is that 85% is not ambitious enough - that it sounds as if we are willing to settle for 15% of our students NOT being career- and college-ready. We understand that concern. Michigan believes that every student should graduate with the skills necessary to succeed in career and college. However, we also know that we have a long way to go until we are at that point.

The tension here for the state is to create goals that are both ambitious and attainable. Leaving no children behind was ambitious. But it wasn't attainable. 


So, for the next decade, the state will do its best to only leave 15 percent behind. 
Let's hope for our children's sake that we can at least do that. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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