News Story

Inferior Compared To What? Detroit Students Slam Charter School

When adjusted for student backgrounds, this charter outperformed Detroit district schools

Two students who attended a Detroit charter school made the news when they criticized Universal Academy during their graduation speeches, saying they received an inferior education.

The Detroit Free Press reported that students Tuhfa Kasem and Zainab Altalaqani used their speeches to criticize the charter school for its use of substitute teachers, and for firing some popular teachers.

Universal Academy is, however, one of the rare Detroit schools where students who face the greatest social and economic challenges are making progress academically, at least compared to other schools with a similar population. It was ranked the 14th-best school in a Mackinac Center for Public Policy report card that compares academic growth at schools after adjusting for the socioeconomic background of their student bodies. Universal Academy received an “A” on the report card, which looked at test results from 674 Michigan public high schools.

The charter school had 728 students in 2018-19, of which 98.35% were considered “economically disadvantaged,” based on their eligibility for federal meal subsidies.

In the rankings from the Michigan Department of Education, Universal Academy ranks as the 2,715th-best school out of 3,405.

The state’s rankings don't give as much consideration to the very different backgrounds of student populations at different schools. By factoring in socioeconomic status, the Mackinac Center’s report card gives an apples-to-apples comparison between schools. Without this adjustment, standardized tests generally find that affluent students do well and poorer students struggle.

The Detroit school district’s academic struggles have been well documented. The district has 22 high schools, 18 of which earned an “F” on the Mackinac Center report card. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, dubbed “The Nation’s Report Card,” releases biennial evaluations of the academic progress of students in America’s largest urban school districts, based on fourth- and eighth-grade student test results on math, reading, science and writing. The Detroit school district finished last in every one of those categories in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.