The legislative pushback against Gov. Rick Snyder, the state Education Department, business community and some education groups leaves in doubt what standardized test will be given to some 800,000 students in grades 3-8 and 11th. And there's little time to resolve the conflict before legislators finalize the next state budget in a month.
At issue are plans to administer tests to align with new uniform national education standards known as Common Core. For almost four years, Michigan has participated in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two broad groups of states developing companion tests to the Common Core standards.
The standards spell out what math and English skills students should have at each grade, and are designed to develop more critical thinking skills than traditional school work.
The Smarter Balanced exams will have questions requiring written responses as opposed to just multiple-choice answers, so students' writing and problem-solving skills are better evaluated. The computer-adaptive tests will be given online so the difficulty of questions changes based on student responses and to provide quicker results intended to give teachers meaningful feedback along with scores comparable to other states.
After vigorous debate last year, the Republican-led Legislature let Michigan continue transitioning to the new standards despite multi-dimensional opposition from conservatives and some liberals. But lawmakers hesitated over funding the Smarter Balanced tests expected to replace Michigan Educational Assessment Program exams. Their concerns remain.
A bill pending in the House would order the state to create new MEAP tests for English and math next academic year — while still aligning with Common Core — and to request bids for alternative tests for 2015-16 and beyond. Senate legislation includes no funding of statewide assessments for now, also seeks a new bidding process and specifies criteria the new test must meet.
"Nobody likes the MEAP, but I think we need to make sure that as we go into a new assessment we're picking the right one," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto. "I want to make sure our school leaders are ready and comfortable with a new assessment."
Critics are concerned that Smarter Balanced, which 120,000 Michigan students in 675 schools are testing out this spring, won't be ready next spring. There also are doubts about the length of the new tests and schools' readiness for them, though paper-and-pencil options will be available while districts beef up technology.
State education officials have warned, however, that Michigan will violate laws, break existing contracts and be left with no standardized test next year and likely in 2015-16 if it doesn't stick with Smarter Balanced at least for the interim. Also complicating matters is that a new teacher evaluation system being considered in the Legislature would rely, in part, on student performance on state exams.
The evaluation system and an assessment that measures student growth should be in place next school year or else the state's waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law may be jeopardized, according to state Superintendent Mike Flanagan.
"I believe we'll lose the waiver, and that will hurt kids," he said. "Apparently, the Legislature doesn't believe that. I hope they're right, but that's a pretty big gamble."
Organizations backing the Smarter Balanced tests include Business Leaders for Michigan — a group of corporate CEOs and university presidents — local chambers of commerce and some education organizations. They recently told legislators there's widespread support for the state's current plans.
"Taking a step back to the MEAP is not a viable option," said Detroit Regional Chamber CEO and President Sandy Baruah. He said Smarter Balanced is a "far better" tool to gauge students' performance and preparation for the global marketplace. Snyder, a Republican and believer in the Common Core standards, also prefers staying on course with the companion Smarter Balanced exams.
Political resistance to the test is not unique to Michigan. South Carolina is moving to replace the Common Core standards after recently withdrawing from the Smarter Balance consortium, which has more than 20 states. Other participating states like Pennsylvania and Kansas are developing their own assessments.
"We're starting to hear the alarm bells going off on this issue," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Phil Pavlov. "We need to pause this right now."
He said he's concerned the new math and English tests could take twice as long to finish and he's heard from teachers concerned about their evaluations being tied to a test over which he fears Michigan will have less control. State officials counter that Michigan has been closely involved in developing Smarter Balanced tests.
"We're not asking that any specific test be chosen," said Pavlov, R-St. Clair. "Let's have a full, honest (request for proposals) process go out to the field so the Legislature can evaluate what kind of assessment is out there to test the next generation of kids in Michigan. I don't think that's asking too much."
Whatever test is chosen, the state plans to administer it to elementary and middle school students next spring and no longer in the fall, so they're assessed on learning in the current school year rather than mostly the prior year.
Michigan Education Department's report on Common Core-aligned testing options: http://1.usa.gov/1hjeZLy
Michigan's guidance to schools on 2014-15 test transition: http://1.usa.gov/1kzQZb0
Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium: http://www.smarterbalanced.org