Adjusting for a child's family income produces big changes in school rankings
Because of the way the state ranks schools, many schools in Michigan that score low may actually be among the best in the state.
The state-ranked schools get higher — and more appropriate — rankings when test scores are adjusted for a child's family income.
On its website, the Michigan Department of Education asks, "How Does Your School Measure Up?" But the reported scores provide little context, so the rankings are not always a great measure of how good a school actually is.
When ranking school districts based on test scores, the state and the media heavily promote MEAP scores and the state's Top-to-Bottom list.
That list ranks all Michigan public schools, and is based on student proficiency (50 percent of a school's grade), student growth (25 percent) and the size of a school's achievement gap (25 percent).
If a school receives a low ranking, the state can require it to implement reforms, including the termination of the school principal. Legislators have also proposed using the list to determine which schools are taken over by a statewide reform district.
However, among education policy experts, it is generally accepted that a student's socioeconomic background is the most important indicator of how well they will perform in the classroom. Enter the "Context and Performance" report card from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which compares individual high school and elementary school MEAP scores and accounts for family household income.
That one tweak can produce big changes.
For example, Reo Elementary School in Lansing would be ranked among the lowest 12 percent of schools in Michigan based strictly on straight test scores. Adjust for socioeconomic status and the schools is among the top 3 percent of schools, a difference of 85 percentage spots.
Pasteur Elementary School, part of Detroit Public Schools, is in the bottom 9 percent on the top-to-bottom rankings, but adjusting for family income places it among the top 2 percent of schools. Pasteur Elementary recently was recognized by Excellent Schools Detroit as one of the top 20 performers in Detroit.
With a significant majority of students eligible for free or reduced meals, Universal Learning Academy in Westland would be ranked among the top 7 percent of schools; the state has it in the bottom 10 percent.
Nawal Hamadeh, head of the charter school company that runs the academy, said the state rankings are misleading.
"Achievement is too large of a factor and it should have more to do with growth in light of the background characteristics of the population being served," Hamadeh said.
Adjusted for income status, Crestwood Elementary School in Rockford would be among the top 20 percent of schools; the state has it among the bottom 20 percent. Superintendent Mike Shibler has been with the district 25 years and said the school has long required students to pass a high school competency test for a high school diploma.
He called the state rankings "ridiculous."
"We're an outstanding school district and the facts point that out," Shibler said. "[But] expectations should always be that students achieve at a high level whether poverty levels are high or low."
Parents in the Hamtramck area researching elementary and middle schools would find that Dickinson East and Bridge Academy both have high reviews by parents. However, both schools are ranked low by the state. Dickinson, a conventional public school, is in the lowest 6 percent of schools in the state, while Bridge, a charter public school, is in the lowest 12 percent.
But adjusting for income ranks them in the top 6 percent, and 8 percent, respectively.
Thomas Niczay, superintendent of Hamtramck Public Schools, said the state rankings are unfair.
"Hamtramck has the highest poverty rate in Wayne County," he said. "The Mackinac Center's rankings value the affects of poverty while MDE's clearly do not. Research says it takes five to six years to learn a language. Hamtramck has a high zero and limited English speaking population. [The] MDE says after one year those students must take standardized tests. The challenges of poverty and a high immigrant population are difficult, but the Mackinac Center's rankings show when given a even playing field Hamtramck Public Schools are successful."
To see state standardized test scores adjusted for socioeconomic status for every elementary, middle and high school in the state, click here.