News Story

Michigan Plans to Close Some Top Public Schools

State test scores ignore student backgrounds; makes some best schools look worst

Some quality Michigan public schools may be shut down by the state in 2017 due to their standing in a ranking that uses standardized test scores. Some scholars and analysts, though, say that the ranking is incomplete because it does not take into account the impact of students’ social and economic status on how much they are learning. That omission, they say, overlooks the progress that a school may be making with a challenging population.

The website Chalkbeat Detroit reported Aug. 15 that more than 100 schools with poor scores on the state’s standardized tests could be closed by June. The site quoted Dan LaDue, assistant director for accountability for the state School Reform Office, as saying that his office would send closure notices to the schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent on state exams from 2014 through 2016. Exceptions would be granted if closing a school would pose what he called an “unreasonable hardship” to students, the story said.

Christyn Herman, a spokeswoman for the School Reform Office, told Michigan Capitol Confidential that decisions about closures have not been made. She said more information will become available about “next levels of accountability” toward the end of the calendar year.

There are 130 Michigan public schools the state has categorized as “priority” schools, meaning they finished in the bottom 5 percent in its Top-to-Bottom list. Those schools are subject to state intervention due to poor scores on the state’s standardized tests. But when those scores are adjusted to reflect the socio-economic status of their students, five were found to have earned an A, 10 got a B, and 27 merited a C.

For example, Reo School, a pre-K through 3rd grade school in Lansing, is listed in the bottom 1 percent in the state’s rankings. If the socio-economic status of its students is factored into the ratings, however, Reo’s grade moves up to an A. That’s because 87 percent of the school’s 189 students are “economically disadvantaged,” which means they qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. The statewide average is 46 percent.

“It’s past time to shut down the state’s most consistently failing schools that leave so many students unprepared for the future,” said Ben DeGrow, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “But officials should take into account the academic progress students are making, and not just a school’s poverty rate, when making those decisions.”

Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said the state believes that all children can achieve at high levels and that students should be held to the same high standards. Ackley pointed to the state’s Top 10 In 10 Years initiative.

“The recognition that poverty has an impact on learning is a thread that runs through the Top 10 in 10 initiative, and nowhere in there is a goal or strategy to lower the standards for any student or any school,” Ackley said in an email. “We work together with all education stakeholders across Michigan to provide the necessary strategies and resources to help all students, including at-risk students, achieve at the highest levels academically.”

Scholars who have studied the issue have highlighted the impact that socio-economic status has on student performance. Jack Schneider, an assistant professor at the College of Holy Cross who studies education policy, said in August 2014 that socio-economic status was a “powerful predictor” of student standardized test scores.

Selcuk Sirin, an associate professor at New York University who has done several studies on socioe-conomic status, said in November 2014 that it was “one of the strongest correlates of academic performance.”

Yet, already in Michigan, quality schools are being closed at the district level.

In April, the Battle Creek Public Schools Board of Education voted to close a school that is its top-rated elementary school when socio-economic status is factored in. The Urbandale Elementary school was closed in April.

The Mackinac Center evaluated 11 Battle Creek elementary and middle schools in its report card that factors socio-economic status into school rankings. Urbandale was the only one of the 11 to receive a B. Six schools received a C, one received a D, and three merited an F.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.