News Story

Study: Michigan School Rankings Mostly Measure Poverty, Not Quality

Mackinac Center report recommends greater emphasis on student growth

Stringent state rules require school districts to lay off employees based on flawed rankings, according to a new study. And the state's report card might be punishing school districts and education employees who are doing a good job.

The Michigan Department of Education is required by state and federal laws to rank schools to try to measure their quality. The MDE developed "Top-to-Bottom" rankings, which are broadly based on student proficiency (50 percent of a school's grade), student growth (25 percent) and achievement gap (25 percent).

But the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and many school officials say the Top-to-Bottom list is flawed.

"You have to take reality into account,” said Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. "It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where every student in Michigan came from a family that was not struggling. But the fact of the matter is we don't. And it is simply folly to pretend that Grosse Pointe students are coming from the same background that, say, Detroit students are coming from."

The study, which was authored by Spalding, says the current "system risks penalizing schools based not on their actual performance, but rather on the portion of low-income students they happen to enroll."

The study quotes two school officials:

  • In 2011, Brendan Walsh, a Grosse Pointe Public Schools school board member, plotted schools' Top-to-Bottom scores against the percentage of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in each school, and wrote of the Top-to-Bottom ranking, “…[O]ne should not conclude that low scores on standardized tests are a sign of a bad school any more than concluding high scores mean a school is ideal.”
  • David Britten, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, conducted a similar analysis in 2013 and concluded: "Disguised as a ranking system… [the Top-to-Bottom list] really is nothing more than another blinding flash of the obvious. Did we really need another expensive system for identifying which schools and districts have higher rates of poverty than others?"

Education experts across the ideological spectrum say that poverty rates have a high correlation with student performance. So schools that serve largely low-income students tend to have test scores much lower than schools that serve a higher-income population.

The study says that 55 percent of a school’s ranking on the latest Top-to-Bottom list can be explained by the percentage of those who qualify for free school lunches. Michigan's list is more correlated to poverty rates than similar rankings in other surveyed states.

The study recommends placing a greater emphasis on student growth and looking to other states for ways to retool the Top-to-Bottom ranking. Thanks to state and federal requirements, low-ranked schools can be forced to fire the school principal, replace the majority of the staff, convert to a charter school or even close the building.

A hypothetical situation helps explain how this could happen to a good school: Say a school serves students who are from families living below the poverty line. Those students score in the lowest 10 percent on state standardized tests at the beginning of the year, but a great school with great teachers raises the scores to 30 percent by the end of the year. Another district serves largely wealthy students who score 75 percent at the beginning of the year, but drops to 60 percent by the end. As it is now, the Top-to-Bottom list could give the latter school a better ranking than the former.

That's a big deal because In the past, the state has forced schools to remove principals who may have been doing a good job. The Mackinac Center rankings have shown that some schools ranked among the worst in the state may actually be among the best.

Other states include academic growth more prominently in their rankings than Michigan. The study recommends that legislators "look at how other states rank schools in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of penalizing schools for simply serving more disadvantaged students."

See the full study here.


Mackinac Center director of education policy, Audrey Spalding, discussing the new study:

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.