Among the most contentious bills to move through the highly partisan lame duck legislative session in Lansing is a plan to attach an A through F grade for each school building in Michigan.

Education officials slammed the idea even as the state Senate approved the measure on Tuesday and Gov. Rick Snyder now contemplates signing the bill into law.

But the bigger question is this: Is this grading system just the latest in a long line of so-called education reforms that focus on the somewhat superficial rather than substantive changes that can improve students’ quality of life when they become adults?

Supporters of the A-F system say it will make it easier for parents to gauge how schools are performing, but foes say the system may hamper student performance and attitudes if kids are labeled as attending a school with a lowly D or F grade.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has found no effective solution for chronic absenteeism among K-12 students. In fact, a new report shows that Michigan ranks among the 10 worst states with a chronic absenteeism level of about 20 percent. In comparison, the national average is about half that rate, at 11 percent.

Chronic no-shows are typically defined as students who miss at least 10 percent of school – a measure that amounts to about 20 days — in a given academic year.

Obviously, a prolonged pattern of truancy detracts from students’ learning and their efforts to keep pace with their grades. In addition, the routine sight of empty desks also affects classroom morale and the overall learning experience.

On the other hand, what makes this problem particularly vexing is that it often has more to do with underperforming parents than renegade students.

Absenteeism in Detroit is shockingly bad

An analysis of federal data by the advocacy group Attendance Works found that lagging attendance is especially endemic among blacks, Hispanics, kids from low-income households and students suffering from a disability.

In Detroit, federal data has put the school district’s rate of chronic absenteeism at an astounding 58 percent. Detroit school officials have made numerous attempts in recent years to address this lingering malady, including the June announcement of a new attendance policy.

Another plan embraced by state lawmakers calls for ending the traditional “tough love” approach toward truancy. A state law that went into effect in August 2017 essentially requires schools to avoid suspending or expelling a habitually absent student, which would additionally reduce the amount of time these students are missing class.

Officials search for a magic bullet

From a statewide perspective, education reforms by lawmakers and education officials in Michigan have seemingly amounted to a search for the magic bullet. The annual statewide exam administered to K-12 students has undergone three overhauls over the past decade and the process of informing the public about their local schools’ performance has also experienced changes.

With Michigan slipping toward the bottom rungs of the nation’s 50-state education system, the newest results for the newest exam — the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP — show that the state’s scores have dropped even further this year. In some cases, the numbers mark the fourth consecutive decline in English language arts, math and social studies. In many cases, the percentage of kids who passed the overall test is shockingly low.

Bridge Magazine reported in August that despite years of education reform, millions of dollars in targeted spending, closures of underperforming schools and the impending threat of flunking third-graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading, scores on the M-STEP sank even lower this past school year in most grades and test subjects.

Yet, embracing new approaches based mostly on demographics could prove fruitless.

According to the Attendance Works report, chronic absenteeism exceeding 20 percent is more common in city schools than in suburban and rural areas. But in Oregon an analysis showed especially high absenteeism rates in rural areas. In Alabama and Mississippi, white students are more likely to miss school than black students.

So, there’s no magic bullet to solve this problem. Especially by tagging each school with an A-F grade.


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