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

Political posturing, multimillion dollar contracts and the future of student testing in Michigan

Kees Romkes

Schools in Michigan will face a big change next year in student testing. After more than four decades in use, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP test, is on its way out. That much is known.

What’s unknown at this point is what will replace the MEAP. There’s currently a pitched battle raging in Lansing over what to do. And it turns out, much of that battle boils down to money and government infighting.

One thing we are able to say for sure: kids will be asked next year to take some kind of standardized test. It’s a requirement of federal law. And a requirement for the state to keep receiving federal education funding, which last year was equal to an estimated 13 percent of the state’s total education budget.

But which test will kids be asked to take?

The Michigan Department of Education says the best option is a test called theSmarter Balanced Assessment.

Vincent Dean, who leads the Office of Standards and Assessment at the MDE, says this test will require more written responses, as opposed to multiple choice, and require students to show more critical thinking skills.

"I think the results will be a richer indicator of school quality," Dean says. "I think it will broaden what types of things schools will be able to demonstrate that they’ve made progress on with students."

The reason for switching tests is that Michigan is switching curriculum standards. Next year, the state will officially move ahead on the new standards known as Common Core. Those standards were hotly debated last year among state legislators.

And now the test to measure the standards is being hotly debated as well.

"[Has] the legislature at all been involved with the issue of what test we ought to use?" asked state Senator John Pappageorge at a joint hearing of both the House and Senate Education committees last week. 

State legislators have held two hearings so far to talk about next year’s school tests.  At last week's hearing, Pappageorge wondered why the legislature doesn’t have more of a say in the decision on what test to use.

"I am reluctant to give away legislative authority to any executive authority out there," Pappageorge said. "It’s called separation of powers, and I happen to be just really hard over on that one."

Here’s the thing: the Michigan legislature doesn’t have authority over education policy in Michigan. In the state constitution, that authority is given to the State Board of Education, which appoints the State Superintendent, who oversees The Michigan Department of Education, which carries out education policy.

What the legislature does have authority over is the education budget. Making the switch to a new statewide test is expected to cost about $54 million in next year’s budget.

It turns out, student testing involves some very big bucks.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment itself was created with the help of a $176 million federal grant.

One of the alternatives legislators are considering, the ACT Aspire, comes from ACT, Inc, a nonprofit company with more than $300 million in revenue reported in 2011. ACT, Inc currently has a contract to administer its college readiness test to Michigan 11th graders. That contract has an estimated value of nearly $70 million

So, with millions of dollars at stake, and apparently a question of separation of government powers, what do educators actually want to happen?

"Well, I don’t know if I have a strong preference," says Ron Caniff,  superintendent of Grandville Public Schools, in a suburb of Grand Rapids. He says his less-than-strong preference is to move ahead on Smarter Balanced, but keep the ACT for high school students.

Mostly, though, with only a little more than a year to go before students actually have to sit down and take the test, Caniff just wants some decision.

"Our kids, they’re ready whenever," Caniff says. "Whenever the state rolls it out and says this is the tool, our kids will give it their very best effort." 

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.