Florida’s A-Plus Program, which provided school assessment and accountability reforms, was also an important element of the state’s reform agenda. Indeed, the program was linked in part to Florida’s expansion of school choice opportunities.
There is some empirical evidence to suggest that Florida’s school assessment and accountability system has helped improve student achievement. A 2007 study published by the nonprofit Urban Institute showed that students in Florida schools
receiving an F subsequently increased their achievement to a statistically significant degree compared to students in other schools in both reading and math from 2002 to 2003.[*]
Florida’s A-Plus Program also has a broad impact. Every school in Florida is assigned a letter grade and receives performance-based rewards or penalties. The A-Plus Program was also an early element to the Florida reform model.
Michigan has several school assessment and accountability systems,[†] but unlike Florida’s, these are neither clear nor consequential. The guide to understanding the grading system in the Michigan School Report Card spans 29 pages. The explanation of the school accreditation methodology requires 97 pages.
Further, Michigan’s assessments do not substantially differentiate schools. In 2010, 91 percent of Michigan’s general education schools (excluding alternative and special-education schools ) made “adequate yearly progress.”[‡] The same year, 97 percent of schools receiving a grade on the Michigan School Report Card got an A, B or C. No schools were labeled “unaccredited” — in other words, given an F — by the Michigan Department of Education in 2011.[§]
If policymakers wish to continue Michigan’s school assessment and accountability system, they should reform it. The program has at least two major weaknesses: It is difficult to understand, and it does not provide genuine incentives — neither significant rewards nor penalties — for schools and districts to improve their performance.
Rewards could include a per-pupil foundation grant increase to the district — or better yet, extra funding provided directly to the successful school, creating a bonus similar to the one in Florida, where the award money is sent directly to the school, not the district. This school-based funding differs from the usual method of distributing education revenue across the country; typically, money is either collected by, or passed through, school district bureaucracies, which then determine how the revenue is spent.
Consequences for poor school performance should include enabling parents of students in failing schools to use public funds to access alternative educational opportunities. These alternatives should include schools in other districts, charter schools, online schools and if the state constitution is amended, private schools.
Michigan would not be alone in adopting Florida’s accountability reforms. Indiana, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana and Utah have implemented letter-grade accountability systems similar to Florida’s.
[*] These schools made changes aimed at improving achievement, including lengthening the time spent on instruction; providing extra support to low-performing students (for example, after-school tutoring); increasing resources available to teachers (for example, providing more time for class preparation and collaborative planning, professional development); and reorganizing the classroom environment (for example, using smaller instructional “units” of pupils within a classroom). Cecilia Elena Rouse et al., “Feeling the Florida Heat?: How Low-Performing Schools Respond to Voucher and Accountability Pressure,” (Urban Institute, 2007), http://goo.gl/ltL7U (accessed May 31, 2013). These results were based on the FCAT and the Stanford Achievement Test Series, Tenth Edition. The authors of this study were sensitive to the possibility that improved student achievement could be a result of schools learning how to “game” the accountability system to improve their grade. They observed, however: “[T]he evidence suggests that some combination of the policies and practices that the ‘F’-graded schools have put into place in apparent response to accountability pressures have contributed to the relative test score gains of the ‘F’-graded schools.” Ibid., 35. These findings corroborate a 2001 study that found that the threat of vouchers were having a positive impact on the performance of schools receiving an F. Greene, “The Looming Shadow,” Education Next, vol. 1, no. 4, (Hoover Institution, 2001), http://goo.gl/rkqM6 (accessed April 3, 2013).
[†] Michigan uses separate measures like the “adequate yearly progress” model required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Education YES! — A Yardstick for Excellent Schools, Michigan School Report Card and a “persistently lowest achieving schools” top-to-bottom school ranking. “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP),” (Michigan Department of Education), http://goo.gl/V3IeE (accessed March 20, 2013); “Michigan’s School Accreditation System: Education Yes!,” (Michigan Department of Education), http://goo.gl/xCwG8 (accessed March 20, 2013); “Michigan District and School Scorecards,” (Michigan Department of Education), http://goo.gl/bQNBi (accessed March 20, 2013); “2012 Top-to-Bottom,” (Michigan Department of Education), http://goo.gl/E0kEI (accessed March 20, 2013).
[‡] Author’s calculations based on “2011 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) Results: Excel file of all 2011 AYP data,” (Michigan Department of Education, 2011), http://goo.gl/bpkEr (accessed July 2, 2012). AYP is a measure created by the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. An individual school’s AYP status is determined by its students’ performance on English language arts and mathematics standardized tests as well as attendance and graduation rates. For more information, see “Purpose of AYP,” (Michigan Department of Education, 2011), http://goo.gl/gKHqn (accessed March 29, 2011).
[§] Author’s calculations based on ibid. In 2011, the state did identify 98 schools as “persistently lowest achieving” under an accountability system. This system requires that the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state be identified and placed under the supervision of the state’s “school reform/redesign officer.” The schools must submit a plan to this officer and select one of four federally provided “intervention” models: “the turnaround model, restart model, school closure, and transformation model.” “98 Lowest Achieving Schools Identified; and Latest ‘Top-to-Bottom’ School Rankings Released,” (Michigan Department of Education, 2011), http://goo.gl/88rKE (accessed April 4, 2012); MCL § 380.1280c(1)-(2).
 “2011-2012 Guide to Reading the Michigan School Report Cards: What’s New in the 2012 Michigan School Report Cards,” (Office of Psychometrics, Accountability, Research & Evaluation; Michigan Department of Education, 2012), http://goo.gl/MaiHn (accessed March 20, 2013); “Michigan School Improvement Framework Rubric,” (Office of School Improvement; Michigan Department of Education), http://goo.gl/UNMnP (accessed March 20, 2013).
 Author’s calculations based on “2011 Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) Results: Excel file of all 2011 AYP data”, (Michigan Department of Education, 2011), http://goo.gl/bpkEr (accessed July 2, 2012).
 See, for instance, Olson and LaFaive, “A Michigan School Money Primer for Policymakers, School Officials, Media and Residents,” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 2007), 4, http://goo.gl/e4B78 (accessed June 3, 2013).