The Michigan Department of Education is reporting that 95 percent of school districts in this state made "Adequate Yearly Progress" in the 2009-2010 school year. A closer look at the methodology and findings, however, shows that the AYP stamp of approval is hollow and does little to inform parents about whether their children are actually learning.

This supposed good news is in stark contrast to certain other reports. Detroit Public Schools, for example, made AYP by MDE standards, but recently made national headlines for record-setting ineptitude on standardized tests. Something's not right here, and that something is state-instituted accountability standards.

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To be fair, the AYP requirement is part of the federal "No Child Left Behind" law passed in 2002.  NCLB created perverse incentives for states by setting unreasonably high standards (100 percent of schools need to meet AYP by 2014), pumping more cash into the lowest-performing schools, and then leaving the states to figure out how to measure and improve "adequate progress."

Not surprisingly, most realized it was easier to create hollow standards, and that's exactly what's on display here. School districts are given so much leeway in qualifying for AYP status that nearly any one of them can make the grade.

For example, graduation rates are one factor in determining AYP, with the target being 80 percent. Any district with a higher rate makes the grade, but schools are given a six-year window of opportunity to achieve it. Therefore, a 2003 freshman who dropped out in 2005 would still count toward a district's graduation rate if he or she happened to get their GED by the end of 2009 (regardless of whether or not the district had anything to do with it).

Additionally, even if a district doesn't meet the 80 percent mark, it can still meet the AYP objective by meeting the "improvement target." Under this formula, a district with a 65 percent graduation rate would meet AYP standards if their previous year's rate was 60 percent or lower.

Similar adjustments are used for the portion of AYP that's based on state standardized test scores. Districts are allowed to use their current year, two-year average or three-year average scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests. If they still fall short, districts may qualify as a "safe harbor" and avoid sanctions by decreasing the percentage of non-proficient students by 10 percent. So a district of 3,000 students in which half (1,500) failed to score "proficient" would still make AYP if it reduced this number to 1,350.

The current AYP shell game also makes it virtually impossible for parents and taxpayers to gauge what kind of value they're getting from our public schools. Michigan actually stands out in this regard: A study of state AYP assessment programs found Michigan's standards to be "relatively easy." Scholars took a diverse sample of schools and tested them against state standards. Only four of the states studied had easier AYP standards than Michigan. Indeed, if not for NCLB-mandated student classifications, every Michigan school in the study would have passed the state's standards even though they were mostly low-performing.

It's not surprising, then, to find that when Michigan students are compared objectively to their peers in other states, they don't do very well. The most reliable source for such comparisons is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A recent study showed that students Michigan deems to be "proficient" actually average one of the lowest NAEP scores in the country.

Also, the average ACT score in Michigan is the fourth worst nationally. It's true that Michigan gives more students this test than most states, but even when that's taken into account the results aren't much better. Compared to states in which at least 70 percent of students take the ACT, Michigan's ranks 13th out of 15. Of the eight states that test 90 percent or more of graduates, only two score worse than Michigan.

Getting independent, valid measurements of the efficacy of a monopolistic system like government-run schools is by no means simple. After eight years of NCLB-directed assessments, bureaucrats in Lansing and Washington are still failing to meaningfully measure performance — and have strong incentives to keep failing. The only thing that will really change these incentives is to give parents genuine choice in where to school their children. Until that happens, we'll be left guessing about how our schools are really performing.


Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.