On Being Designated ‘Focus Schools’

Earlier this year, Berrien Springs Public Schools celebrated its best test results ever based on the latest state assessment, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Berrien Springs students exceeded state averages in every testing area except fifth grade science and ninth grade social studies. It appeared state assessments were validating that the district’s curricular changes, professional development, formative assessments, interventions and extended learning opportunities were paying off for students.

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At the beginning of August, however, the Michigan Department of Education informed me that Berrien Springs’ upper elementary and middle schools were to be designated under the department’s new statewide report cards as “Focus” schools. This was due to the assessed gap between the top 30 percent subgroup of students and the bottom 30 percent subgroup. Due to this new ranking, the district will have to offer residents district-funded transportation if they choose to leave for another district.

While Berrien Springs wholeheartedly endorses using achievement data to inform decisions about how to improve student performance (we do this constantly all on our own), these new state designations are problematic. In order to “improve,” districts must make several unnecessary trade-offs that are sure to negatively impact at least some subgroup of students.

For instance, Berrien Springs could stop enrolling nonresident students through Michigan’s “Schools-of-Choice” law. About 15 percent of the district’s current enrollment is made up of such students from a nearby low-performing district. This option is not appealing for at least two reasons: 1) One of the district’s missions is to provide a quality education to all students, not just ones who happen to live within our boundaries, and 2) Parents should be the ones allowed to select the district or school that provides a great education. Ironically, Gov. Rick Snyder is simultaneously trying to encourage districts to enroll more nonresident students with funding incentives.

Another undesirable option for closing our achievement gaps would be to stop challenging higher performing students with learning opportunities above their current age-based grade level. If their standardized test results begin to slip and the lowest performing students’ scores remain flat, the gap will have been narrowed. This, obviously, doesn’t seem fair to those high-performing students.

Still another option is to attempt to become a more homogeneous district. Nearly 70 percent of Berrien Springs students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program. We also have large subgroups of English Language Learners, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Our district has greatly profited from the spin-off diversity of being the district of choice for many of the employees at nearby Andrews University, the international flagship college of Seventh-day Adventists and labeled by U.S. News and World Report as one of the most culturally diverse universities in the world. The more diverse Berrien Springs is, the more opportunity there is for achievement gaps to exist between subgroups, but the district is not going to abandon its tradition of serving a diverse group of students just to lower its chances of being labeled a “Focus” school.

As mentioned, none of these options are desirable, and it leaves Berrien Springs in an incredibly difficult position. Apparently, the only good option left is to try to make our lowest performing students improve their average performance on state assessments at a faster rate than the average of our highest performers. All the while, Berrien Springs will continue enrolling more nonresident students who may also be low performers through no fault of our own.

My district is up for any challenge, but this task borders on the impossible. It also puts Berrien Springs in a position where we could be accused for providing an unequal learning experience to students based on their performance on state assessments. This is not the type of learning environment we want to provide, and not one that any taxpaying parent should have to settle for.


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