A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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State School Rankings Mostly Measuring Race and Income Rather Than Performance

Top-to-Bottom ratings rely heavily on student economic background

Nearly four out of five students in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the Michigan Department of Education’s Top-To-Bottom Ratings for 2013-14 were eligible for the federal governments free or reduced-price lunch program.

Only about 11 percent of the students in the top 5 percent of schools in those rankings were eligible for the free lunch program.

Right now, the rankings rely 50 percent on overall achievement scores and 25 percent on the gap between the highest and lowest performing students. The other 25 percent is academic improvement.

That raises concerns that the state education department is simply measuring the affluence of public school students rather than actual school performance.

“Socioeconomic status is a powerful predictor of student standardized test scores,” said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at the College of Holy Cross who studies educational policy. “The research on this is clear. Now, it's important to clarify that this indicates nothing about cognitive capacity. Minority and low-income children are absolutely as capable of learning as their whiter and more affluent peers. But it does mean that traditionally underserved students tend to start behind and stay behind in school, particularly insofar as we measure progress via standardized tests.

"Relying on test scores to evaluate school quality, then, is a fool's errand," Schneider continued. "Not only because student standardized test scores capture only a fraction of what Americans want their schools to do, ignoring a wide range of critical outcomes, but also because such test scores are a much more accurate measure of race and family income than they are of what students have learned in school.”

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has instituted an academic evaluation system that incorporates the socioeconomic background of students. Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Center, said that after adjusting for poverty level, charter public schools points higher Top-to-Bottom rankings than conventional public schools.

The Michigan Department of Education has been hesitant in the past to factor socioeconomic conditions of students into its rankings, but that may be changing.

In November of 2013, MDE spokesman Martin Ackley explained why the department didn’t include poverty level conditions of students.

“In our accountability systems, we focus on student growth. That way, schools that educate large numbers of low-income students still can get recognized for improvement,” Ackley said. “We don’t believe that we should have one assessment and accountability standard for schools with high numbers of low-income students, and another standard for schools that don’t.”

On August 11, Ackley said student growth would be discussed as part of measuring charter school performance.

“State Superintendent Flanagan believes in improving the educational achievement of ALL students, in particular, low-income students," he said in an email. "He advocated for $130 million more in the Great Start Readiness Program (targeted at low income children) and has repeatedly advocated for millions more invested in At-Risk funding. Improving instruction at both the early childhood level and K-12 with targeted funding is a more effective way to consider low-income backgrounds in student achievement. Also, Superintendent Flanagan has directed Deputy Superintendent Venessa Keesler to meet with authorizers to develop an additional factor to take into consideration student academic growth for [their] portfolios — which will give credit to those schools that show academic growth of their students, even those students from poverty.”

At the Aug. 12 State Board of Education meeting, Flanagan said schools in areas that are “very challenging” and show improvement should be taken into account.

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See also:

Flawed State Rankings Mean Some Principals Are Out of a Job

State Education Department Gives a Pass to Failing Districts; Punishes Charters

New Report Card Compares High School Test Scores and Adjusts For Economic Status

New Report Card Measures Elementary and Middle School Performance By Adjusting For Student Family Income

Almost 220,000 Michigan Students Rely On School Choice

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