Measuring Academic Achievement - Standardized Testing vs. Critical Thinking Skills - November, 2018

Standardized Testing Results -
Are They A True Measure of Our Students' Abilities to Be Successful?
by Dr. Ryle Kiser
Superintendent, Grass Lake Community Schools

I have been in education for 30+ years and a school administrator in the state of Michigan for the past 21 ½ years. The one consistent concept that I have had to deal with is school reform. While school reform has not been the same throughout my career, there have been many variations of school reform of which most have not been effective. Ronald Reagan was the last president who felt that education should be under local control. Since George H.W. Bush, the federal government has played an increasing role in the education system of the United States. With the passing of “No Child Left Behind” during George W. Bush’s presidency, the foundation was set to hold schools and teachers more accountable. While I agree that educators should be held accountable for the education of the students, I feel it is equally important to not limit the teachers in the curriculum they can teach and the methods they use to teach the content.

As a young teacher, I was trained to believe that drill and practice, multiple choice questions and teaching to the test were not acceptable as teaching methods. These strategies did not help develop higher levels of comprehension and understanding of academic content, but instead instilled information in short-term memory, which would allow students to apply knowledge to the tests, but not to life situations. But now, these practices are utilized in most classrooms without any real thought given to whether the instruction is meeting the long-term educational needs of the students. Education has shifted its focus away from using creative instructional methods that would require the students to apply their knowledge in a manner that would increase comprehension, to instructing students so there will be better results on the standardized tests. In other words instilling knowledge in the short-term memory just to ensure they will do better on multiple choice tests.  Why wouldn’t the teaching staff make this a priority? Their evaluations and jobs may depend on the student achievement levels on the standardized tests.

What do standardized tests accomplish and are they truly a measurement of student comprehension and proficiency levels? Are standardized tests a reliable form of student assessment? Are they a consistent valid form of student assessment? Because standardized tests are controversial, questions have been asked since the inception of the multiple choice tests by Frederick J. Kelly in 1914. Some of the issues regarding tests of this type are that the questions concentrate on lower-order thinking skills. In our youth today there is an inadequate level of higher order thinking skills. Standardized testing does not require students to think critically or engage in problem solving strategies.  If truth be told, research has indicated that high school grade point averages are a better indicator of student success in the freshman year of college than the SAT or ACT.

Consequently, many creative strategies have been omitted from the classroom. There has been a decrease in the emphasis of critical thinking skills; they are not needed to do well on standardized tests. There has been a decrease in allowing students to develop creative skills; fine arts are not tested. Forget the fact that in order to be able to be an effective problem solver, a person has to have the ability to be able to demonstrate some creativity. That is the reason why many schools have started to phase out certain programs due to financing and budget cuts, such as choir, band, orchestra, art classes and shop classes. Students are not tested on those subjects and they are not part of the 4 common core areas that are currently being tested. The omission of this creativity and the decrease in the priority of strategies that implement higher order thinking skills may be the reason why college professors and employers say that the skills that students are lacking today are the ability to think critically and communicate. I think it is interesting that these two groups have identified the same two weaknesses of today’s students exiting high school to either begin college or enter the workforce. We need to develop assessments that measure students' mastery of genuinely significant cognitive skills, such as their ability to write effectively and their ability to apply knowledge gained from content taught that allow them to analyze issues and problems in today’s society and to effectively solve problems and communicate the findings with their peers.

An Explanation of School Funding - October Issue - Part II
by Dr. Ryle Kiser
Superintendent, Grass Lake Community Schools

In September, I attempted to explain the basics of school funding at the state and local levels. The question then arises as to what this means to the community of Grass Lake and its schools. First of all, before the discussion of allocation of finances from the state begins, it is important to point out the district’s fiscal year begins July 1st of each calendar year. School districts are mandated by law to have an annual budget passed for the following school year by June 30th.  So the budgets developed and passed by the Board of Education are based on predictions of enrollment for the following school year. The State begins its payments to the school districts in October, which has led to many districts in the state finding it necessary to borrow funds to get to October due to cash flow issues. (If you are curious, I do not budget for any increase of enrollment for the next year. The budget is built on the number of students that were in attendance at Grass Lake Schools at the end of the previous school year.)

Foundation Allowance payments, which are established using student count data, make up roughly 63% of the K-12 budget. Federal grants are 12%, State Special Education is 7%, State Teacher Retirement costs are 9%, At-Risk funding makes up 3%, Early Childhood makes up 2%, and other items account for the remainder of the budget. With the number of school districts throughout the state showing a constant decrease in enrollment, many districts are experiencing funding difficulties.  The funding problems have prompted some districts to consider possible future consolidation of their school districts with others, larger class sizes, busing changes, sinking fund potential, and many others issues such as these.

The count days and school funding are mandated through the State School Aid Act. Count Day is when all public schools in Michigan tally the number of students attending their schools. Count information is critical to the district, as each student enrolled and in attendance converts into a stipulated amount of money per student from state funding. The calculation leading to what schools receive is based on a blend of both spring and fall student count (membership) data. The blend is based on the prior school year’s spring count, and the current school year’s fall count. Spring counts occur on the 2nd Wednesday in February and represent 10% of state funding.  Fall counts occur on the 1st Wednesday in October and represent 90% of state funding. (For the 18-19 school year, count days were/are October 3rd and February 13th.) This translates to the count from October 3, 2018, equals 90 percent of the funding and the count from last February, the 14th, equals the other 10 percent. Grass Lake Community Schools’ unofficial enrollment count for October, 2018, was 1,294. The official count for February, 2018, was 1,253.

The majority of the money the district receives goes toward personnel, both professional and support staff. Over 80% of the expenditures pay for salaries, benefit packages, FICA, and the district’s contribution to the employee retirement plan. The remainder of the revenues are allocated to capital improvement costs (snow plowing, fixing the front sidewalk at the high school, new flooring in the middle school, repairing the parking lot and access roads, etc.), transportation (purchase of buses and transportation costs), technology costs (new devices, licenses, software, etc.), professional development the district provides to the staff, contracted services (insurance, support staff from the intermediate school district, copier contracts, etc. ), and funding for supplemental and extracurricular programs (No, the athletic program does not pay for itself). All this is taken into consideration while keeping a solid fund equity (savings account) in case the unexpected occurs, such as buying a new boiler for one of the buildings, or having to replace a water main, just to provide some examples.

There is a great deal more to public school financing requirements, such as food services, Title Programs (Federally Funded Programs in targeted at working with students who are at-risk or may need remedial assistance), At-Risk Programs, Great Start Readiness Pre-School Programs, and many others that have completely different funding sources and processes.  While these programs provide us with further revenues as was mentioned in the second paragraph, the revenues are generated through an entirely different formula that could be based on data gathered from the school district, such as its free and reduced lunch percentage.

K-12 School Financing - A Primer - September Issue - Part I
by Dr. Ryle Kiser
Superintendent, Grass Lake Community Schools

Over the past few weeks school funding has been in the news a great deal. Since it is an election year, educational funding for public education always seems to find its way to become a hot topic of discussion between the candidates. I have been asked by a number of people to clarify exactly what is happening with school funding at this time. That is easier said than done, but here is a brief explanation about some of the information hitting the press lately.

During the 2017-18 school year, the School Finance Research Collaborative was established with funding from the Oakland Schools Education Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, Charles Stewart Mott and Skillman foundations, other nonprofit organizations and 32 of Michigan’s Intermediate School Districts. Their task was to review and research the funding of school finance in Michigan compared to funding in the past and funding around the country. This was the first comprehensive study to determine the true cost of educating a student in Michigan both in public schools and in charter schools. The study was conducted in the fall of 2017 by the nation’s top two school finance research firms. More than 30 states have conducted comprehensive adequacy studies over the past 15 years.

300 leading educators were gathered to utilize their professional judgement in an attempt to identify human resources and operating expenses needed to meet student achievement standards. These educators (principals, teachers, special education directors, and other educators) were from all levels and district types: preschool, K to 12, charter schools, districts of varying size, geographically isolated districts, at-risk students, special education, English Language Learners, poverty, and Career and Technical Education. The target was to determine the cost of school personnel, student support services and technology for students to meet both the current and future state standards.

Academic research on student performance was also studied to identify needed resources for schools to meet state standards. The gathered data identified the needed teacher, specialist, support staff and administrator staffing for core programs, including preschool and full-day kindergarten, for all students to meet state standards. Included in the study was the determination of the cost of professional development, instructional materials and supplies, student assessments, computers and other technology.

“Utilizing these two approaches allowed the study team to estimate both the cost of meeting the full state standards for all students at a base level along with the additional costs associated with differences in district and student characteristics.” (Costing out the Resources Needed to Meet Michigan’s Standards and Requirements)

Public school finances come from the School Aid Fund, which was established by the adoption of Article IX, Section 11 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963. This article of the constitution stated the school aid fund shall be used exclusively for aid to school districts, higher education, and school employee retirement systems. The district also receives funding from the federal government, Title funds, which address providing instruction to the at-risk population, professional development for the staff, and supplying supplemental aides to the students as needed.

Recommendations from the Study:

  1. The base per-pupil cost to educate a regular education K-12 student in Michigan is $9,590. This does not include transportation, food service or capital costs and only includes pension costs at 4.6% of wages. (Current funding is approximately $7,900 per student and the pension costs are 26.1%)

  2. A percentage of the base cost should be provided for special education (mild – 0.70, moderate – 1.15, severe – state reimbursement), English Language Learners (TBD), and students living in poverty (0.35), and a 10% funding weight per Career and Technical Education Student.

  3. Because Michigan’s school district sizes vary widely and small districts lack economics of scale, district size must be taken into account, with funding increases provided for all districts under 7,500 students.

  4. Charter schools should have the same base per-pupil funding for a regular education student and the same adjustments to the base amount that traditional districts receive.

  5. It costs $14,155 to educate a preschool student age 3 or 4.

  6. Transportation costs should be funded at $731 per rider until further study can be carried out.

Currently, Grass Lake Community Schools receives approximately $7,900 per student from the state of Michigan. The state ranked 24th in the country for K-12 per-pupil spending. This has dropped significantly from 2000 when the state ranked 8th in per-pupil spending and during this time, Michigan’s inflation adjusted per-pupil spending has fallen $663 per-pupil while, in comparison, the average in the United States has increased $1,400 per-pupil.

Next Month: What Does this Mean to Grass Lake Community Schools