STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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9 questions and answers about standardized tests and "Common Core" in Michigan

There’s a war raging in Lansing over the future of academic testing in Michigan.

Last fall, Michigan school kids took what was supposed to be their last MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) test, ever. The state was pushing forward with a new kind of assessment, based on a set of standards called Common Core.

State Republicans weren’t so thrilled, for lots of reasons. We’ll get to those in a minute.

Recently, they proposed lawsthat would take control of testing away from the Department of Education and give it to the Department of Treasury. Some want to bring back the MEAP.

On Tuesday,the folks that oversee the Department of Education weighed in, saying "no way" to the bills, and pointing to the state’s Constitution as requiring them to manage testing.

Testing is complicated. Here at State of Opportunity, we decided to untangle the string a bit.

At stake is what kids learn, and how we know they are learning it. The outcomes not only affect them, but their parents, teachers, taxpayers and even employers. Everyone agrees that Michigan kids need to be educationally competitive to survive.

The question is how we get them there.

1) MEAP? What’s that?  

The Michigan Educational Assessment Program is a group of subject-based standardized tests of knowledge and skills. It is given to Michigan students in grades three through nine. The Michigan Department of Education stopped updating the 40-year-old test a couple of years ago, after deciding to switch to Common Core standards in 2010.

2) So then, what’s Common Core?

A set of education benchmarks developed by state governors and chief educators. The standards were based on input from teachers, parents, education experts and school administrators and are meant to be comparable from state to state, even if curriculum and teaching methods are different. They were developed out of concern that American students are lagging behind students from other countries. To date, 45 stateshave decided to use the Common Core standards,including Michigan.

3) Ok. But, what is Smarter Balanced?

The federally-funded organization that is developing and field testing some of the academic tests that align with the Common Core state standards.  Michigan is one of about 25 states that opted to use Smarter Balanced tests, which will  go into effect in Michigan during the 2014-2015 school year. The tests are conducted for the most part, by computer, and critics say this is one of many things that make the tests unfair – not every child has access to computers, either at home, or school, and they would have to learn to use one to take the test. Smarter Balanced has field-tested the exams all over the United States, including in Michigan.  

4) Hang on. How will students be taught?

That’s one of the questions at the heart of the debate. The Department of Education says districts will control exactly how and what students are taught, in an effort to meet the core standards. Teachers and administrators will have tons of support to do so. But critics say districts won’t have time to produce locally grown curricula. They’ll have to buy something ready-made. People opposed to Common Core have cited everything from the possibility of objectionable material being used in classrooms to the idea that Common Core was implemented by textbook and curriculum companies that stand to profit from the use of their materials.

5) Is Common Core a federal program?

Critics look at Common Core as a federal takeover of local school districts. But the Department of Education says even if the standards are meant to be the same from state to state, the program was developed by governors and state education chiefs from individual states. And don’t forget, they say, local districts still control how kids are taught.

6) Wait, you just said something was federally funded, right?

Yes. Smarter Balanced has a federal grant to develop standardized tests, as does another group called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Both grants came from the federal Race to the Top program (remember that?). Smarter Balanced says when the grant runs out later this year, they will not ask for more federal dollars. The organization will be run by its member states, including Michigan, which, like other states, gets federal funding for education.

7) But I heard something about No Child Left Behind? Isn’t that federal?

Yes. The Department of Education says if they don’t use Smarter Balanced assessments, they won’t be able to comply with certain parts of No Child Left Behind, the federal program that requires assessments.  

8) Fine. So what’s the fuss in Lansing?

Earlier this year, as the Department of Education was trying to get Smarter Balanced finalized for the next academic year, some state legislators began a campaign for Michigan to abandon Smarter Balanced tests. Some of the concern was about supposed influence of the federal government in state and local education systems. Other legislators were concerned with the questions on the test or that the test still wasn’t ready to be rolled out. Still others felt the Department of Education was stonewalling them on these concerns and others. So, they passed a couple of addenda to the state budget that would only fund the administration of the MEAP, rewritten to meet the Common Core standards. That would force the state to revise the MEAP and abandon Smarter Balanced for the next couple of years.

9) Now what?

A few days ago, a legislator took the state’s education reform drama into a new act. On the table are two billsthat essentially take testing power away from the Department of Education, giving it to the Department of the Treasury. It’s been like this before, under Gov. John Engler, but reversed under Gov. Jennifer Granholm. But the non-partisan Citizens Research Council of Michigansaid then, as they’ve said now, that education should be under a department devoted to it, because it is practical and more efficient to keep educational testing under the same roof as teaching standards and curriculum standards.

Sources: Michigan Radio, Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Legislature, Education Writers Association, Education Week, Common Core State Standards Initiative, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Citizens Research Council, other news outlets