Student Assessment Merry-Go-Round

Deliberations between members of the Michigan Legislature and officials from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) over the future of student assessments, including the decision about which specific test to administer next year, have reached somewhat of a boiling point in recent days.  The ongoing debate about MDE’s plans to implement new state assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards (adopted by the state in 2010) has led some lawmakers to call for a fundamental shift in the responsibility for administering these assessments by transferring authority out of MDE.

Interest in the administrative organization of state education functions is not new.  The current legislative proposal can be seen as another installment in a much longer running discussion about education governance and functions.  Our 2003 report, Organization of State of Michigan Education Functions, explored some of the issues currently being debated and recommended that, with respect to K-12 education functions handled by the state, accountability and efficiency are best served when certification/accreditation, evaluation, and curriculum leadership and development are housed within the same organizational structure.  While other policy goals may be achieved if these functions are organizationally separated, some degree of accountability and/or efficiency is likely to be sacrificed.

Background

The crux of the current debate and apparent stalemate between lawmakers and MDE over student assessments lies in the state’s governance structure of K-12 education and its basic organization of education functions.  Although K-12 education is delivered by local school districts, state level officials provide policy direction, determine funding, and exercise oversight.  Michigan’s system entrusts the legislature, the Governor, the State Board of Education, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction with different, but sometimes overlapping, roles and responsibilities.  The potential for disagreement among these actors in carrying out their duties has its roots in the organizational structures established in the 1963 Michigan Constitution.

Many education functions, including student assessments currently, are carried out by MDE, an executive branch department headed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, a constitutional officer (Article VII, Section 3). Unlike other department heads that are appointed by the Governor, the Superintendent is appointed by the eight-member State Board of Education, which is elected at a statewide election.  The Governor serves on the Board as an ex-officio member without the right to vote.  Michigan is one of seven states where the state board of education is elected and the chief state school officer (Superintendent in Michigan’s case) is appointed by the board.  Under this arrangement, the Superintendent does not directly report to the Governor, but instead is tasked with carrying out the policy directives established by the Board.

The legislature plays an important role too.  While Section 3 grants MDE constitutional status, its powers and duties are to be provided by law.  The current proposal to transfer assessment functions to the Department of Treasury is contemplated in amendments to the Revised School Code (House Bill 5581).

It is worth noting that the Governor, through his executive branch reorganization powers (Article V, Section 2), also can effect changes to MDE’s responsibilities.  In fact, between 1993 and 2001, Governor Engler invoked these powers numerous times to remove primary responsibility for various educational functions from MDE and move those functions to other state agencies.

Recommendations for Organizing Education Functions

CRC’s 2003 report, Organization of State of Michigan Education Functions, examined the organization of state education functions and made a number of reorganization recommendations.  This report was requested by the Superintendent of Public Instruction.  At the time, various K-12 education functions were not housed at MDE, but scattered throughout the executive branch in a number of state departments.  This disorganization of education functions was the result of a period of intense efforts by Governor Engler throughout the 1990s to shrink the role of MDE.  Of particular note, the report argued that the administration of student assessment functions should be returned to MDE from the Department of Treasury.  This recommendation remains relevant today.

In making our recommendations for reorganizational changes, we opined that justification for any change in government organization should be premised on two principles, efficiency and accountability.  We reasoned that changes to educational functions should provide an opportunity to improve efficiency, increase accountability, or both.  We also made it clear that changes must comport with existing constitutional provisions, as these represent the will of the people.  Our recommendations were informed by other states’ organizational structures, but cautioned that each state’s situation is unique.

With respect to assessment functions strewn about state government, the report argued that locating education-related functions in the MDE improves accountability and efficiency by grouping like functions together where they can be more readily coordinated and where a single entity can be held responsible.  Specifically, we called for the creation of the Office of Standards, Assessment and Accreditation Services under the MDE Chief Academic Officer to align the responsibilities for three functions: certification, evaluation, and curriculum leadership.  Further, we argued that this office should be in charge of all educational (non-financial) aspects of the MEAP.

We recommended that assessment functions housed within Treasury be transferred back to MDE.  Administration of student assessments requires staff with educational development, test development, and other skill sets conducive to measuring the educational progress of children.  MDE, not Treasury, staff possessed these skills.  We found that this recommendation would align with the experience in other states.  At the time, of the 31 other states examined, primary responsibility for devising and administering statewide assessment programs was universally housed within state departments of education.  Compared to these other states, Michigan was an outlier.  It was the only state where primary responsibility for assessments was located outside the education department.

In 2003, Governor Granholm acted on our recommendations and issued an executive order (EO 2003-20) to return assessment administration to MDE under the direction of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Conclusion

Legislators and MDE agree that the current iteration of state assessments, the MEAP, is not aligned to the Common Core State Standards and that a replacement is needed.   There is very little agreement, however, about what should replace the MEAP.  Whether the replacement will be the Smarter Balanced assessment that the MDE has been working towards, a re-vamped MEAP, or some other assessment is presently unknown.  One thing is clear; the policy debate in Lansing about the future of student assessments has hit a stalemate and the state needs a new test for next spring to comply with its current waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.  Some lawmakers would like to break the logjam and achieve their policy goals by moving control of state assessment functions away from MDE and place it in the hands of the Department of Treasury.  While this proposed solution may serve as an expeditious policy response and meet other priorities, it most likely would come at a cost of less efficiency and accountability in carrying out state education functions.

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One Response to Student Assessment Merry-Go-Round

  1. The transfer of testing oversight from the MDE to the Treasury is a really bad idea simply because Treasury is not qualified in any way to be involved in the proposed assessment of learning. They already have an enormous financial task before them, putting the States’s fiscal house in order.

    This proposed action, along with various actions in opposition to the CCSS and SBA, appear to be “mission creep” on the part of the legislature and in years past by the Governor’s office. The boundaries of their educational public policy roles have been stretched far beyond that anticipated by our intent to educate our children.

    The legislature’s policy decisions of the last several decades have morphed into detailed prescriptions for classroom activity ostensibly in response to hyperbolic assertions that our schools are failing. Gagging imagination, creativity and diversity in learning through policy intended to improve education is the root problem. Policy at the state level is a primary barrier to learning!

    Now we have moved the argument to a new level of insanity, a public contest of wills between the State Board of Education, the Michigan Department of Education, the Executive Branch and the Legislature adding to the extreme and unnecessary level of distrust between the legislature and those that actually do the work of learning, the teachers and the students.

    It is time for a ‘reset” of the priorities and attitudes of all involved beginning with a rejection of this proposed transfer and tpaying sincere attention to the considered opinion being expressed by the CRC today and in 2003.

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