Where are we with getting a state or federal waiver from spring testing? That's a good question without a good answer. Do we still have to conduct evaluations and will the Legislature pass a waiver? Yes and we don't know. What about the rules for the summer school grants...would my program qualify? Maybe, but it's probably unclear. When the legislation says that schools have to offer 20 hours per week of in person instruction to qualify for equalization payments, does that mean... Lemme stop you right there and direct you to this letter from MDE.

As the people that get stuck with all the planning, Principals understandably need answers on a lot of the issues currently swirling around Lansing. Unfortunately, there aren't many answers available right now.

However, in the spirit of getting you the best information we have available, let's break down the details of what we know on each of these issues. If nothing else, it will give you something to share at your next staff meeting when you get questions.

Testing Waiver

There are two parts to getting a complete waiver from spring testing: the U.S. Department of Education (USDoE) would have to approve Michigan's waiver application and the Michigan Legislature would need to pass bills amending the state laws that mandate state testing. Both things would need to happen in order for schools to forego the ELA, math, and science M-STEP tests; SAT; PSAT 8/9 for 8th graders; MI-ACCESS; and WIDA. However, since the social studies M-STEP, PSAT 8/9 for 9th graders, and PSAT 10 for 10th graders, WorkKeys, and the SAT Essay are only required by state law, the Michigan Legislature could waive those requirements without any action from the federal government.

On the state level, MASSP has been pushing hard for the Michigan Legislature to act to waive the state assessment mandates and clear the way for the state to take advantage of any flexibility granted by the USDoE. We have communicated to key staff and legislators that action is needed as soon as possible and no later than March 25 when the Michigan Legislature leaves for their two-week spring recess. So far, the House Education Committee has passed HB 4037 and HB 4038 which would permanently eliminate the requirement to administer WorkKeys, but has not taken any other action on short-term assessment waivers or longer-term testing reductions. However, with the legislative spring break looming, it is possible (as so often happens) that the threat of a deadline will spur action.

On the federal level, the Michigan Department of Education submitted an application for spring testing flexibility in January. The most recent information we have is this brief update from last week's Spotlight on Assessment and Accountability:

"Statewide Assessment Waiver Request Update

Please refer to this Michigan Department of Education (MDE) press release that details recent communication from the U.S. Department of Education (USED). This communication does not provide for any change to MDE plans for testing at this time. It simply states that USED is open to receiving waiver requests for accountability and assessment from states. MDE is still waiting for a response to our waiver request that was submitted in January. Until USED responds directly to Michigan’s request, schools/districts are to continue to administer WIDA assessments and prepare for other spring testing. Remember, MDE would need flexibility from both federal and state requirements to change testing plans."

A federal waiver includes several parts, all of which are up in the air and two of which in particular are worth a deeper dive:

  • USDoE left the door open for states to apply for flexibility in administering statewide assessments including possibly allowing a state to administer "a shortened version of its statewide assessments." Michigan has requested a waiver from administering summative assessments this year, arguing that since every school is administering benchmark assessments this year, those should count.
  • USDoE gave states lots of room to request waivers from school accountability measures for this year, including "waiving the requirement that the Academic Achievement indicator be adjusted to account for a participation rate below 95 percent." Most of the flexibility on federal accountability will have little impact in Michigan since we are not required to identify new cohorts of comprehensive support and improvement (CSI), targeted support and improvement (TSI), and additional targeted support and improvement (ATSI) schools until next year. But the question of the participation rate both matters and is unclear. Currently, MDE is required to adjust the calculation of a building's accountability score if their participation fell below 95%. So is USDoE waiving that requirement (which would have little or no impact)? Or could this mean they are waiving the 95% participation requirement entirely? And what consequences might be on the line if a school misses 95% participation?

Educator Evaluation

As of this writing, districts are still required to conduct teacher and administrator evaluations this school year. Those evaluations have to meet the requirements of sections 1249 and 1249b (MCL 380.1249 and 380.1249b). Despite months of lobbying from MASSP (we started in on this last summer) and a number of other organizations, there have been no changes to those laws so far to account for the circumstances that districts face in light of the pandemic, so the same evaluation rules apply as for a normal school year.

Unfortunately, the disconnect between the requirements of the current law and the reality of pandemic education aren't going away. For example, teacher evaluations are required to incorporate three years of state and local student growth and assessment data that simply don't exist or have big gaps. MDE has provided districts with some guidance on how to address some of these issues, but Legislative action really is still needed to clear up the problems.

MASSP is still pushing for evaluation waivers on two fronts (both an overall evaluation waiver and a specific waiver for student growth requirements). However, the closer we get to the end of the school year the less a full waiver seems likely, though waivers for the requirement to use student growth data or the requirement to assign an effectiveness rating are still possibilities.

That said, our best advice is to plan on conducting full evaluations for all staff who need one this school year and consider any waivers that pass as a bonus.

Equalization Payments

HB 4048, the budget supplemental that passed the Legislature two weeks ago and was eventually signed by Governor Whitmer with some line item vetoes, appropriates $136 million in School Aid Fund dollars to ensure every district gets an amount of money equivalent to $450 per pupil. This is done through an equalization formula, meaning the state will make up the difference between the amount a district receives under the Title 1a formula and whatever $450 per pupil calculates out to for that district. 

To qualify for this funding, a district must offer at least 20 hours per week of in person instruction to all of its students by no later than March 22. But this leaves any number of unanswered questions for districts that are not going to be able to cleanly meet the deadline:

  • If a district offers 20 hours of in-person instruction or more a week for some grades and not others (for example, in grades K-5, but not in grades 6-12), can they still qualify for some or all of the equalization payment?
  • If a district offers 20 hours of in-person instruction or more per week for all students beginning after March 22, can they still qualify for some of all of the funding?
  • If yes in either case, how does that work?

The short answer is that we don't have answers. MDE sent a letter to the Legislature on March 16 requesting clarification on exactly these questions, but has not provided any guidance to districts. Nor has the Legislature taken any action to resolve these uncertainties. So while it is possible that we could see legislative action in the coming weeks to clarify these issues, there are no guarantees.

Summer School, Credit Recovery, and Before- And After-School Program Grants

Another part of HB 4048 was the inclusion of five different pots of money related to programming that takes place outside the traditional school day and year. That included up to $550 per pupil reimbursements for in-person K-8 summer school programs and high school credit recovery programs (plus $100 per pupil bonuses for programs that are designated "innovative"), $25,000 per district grants for in-person before- and after-school programming, and a $21 million pot of money for incentive payments of $1,000 for teachers and $250 for support staff who work at any of these programs.

So with all these bags of cash available to districts and a looming April 15 deadline that HB 4048 established for districts to apply, where do districts find more information? How do you apply? Should you send your proposals to MDE or someone else? Is this running through the MEGS system? Or is there a place on MDE's website where they have forms? And where can you get detailed information about the criteria for each pot of money so you can be sure your program will qualify?

The long and short answer is that we don't know anything about these programs beyond the somewhat ambiguous language in HB 4048 itself. There is no application process established yet. There is no FAQ or other guidance. And no timeline other than the April 15 deadline established in statute.

There is one thing we do know that's worth keeping in mind: these pots of money are finite and if requests exceed available funds, the payments districts can qualify for will be prorated. So in the absence of better information it might be wise to plan to program you want to deliver, adjust it as best you can based on the language of the statute, and then review other possible fund sources (like ESSER II funding) that you can use if it turns out that your program does not qualify for one of these pots of money or the pot of money turns out not to be as big as you originally planned.