News Story

State Still Downplaying Socioeconomic Status' Impact on School Rankings

State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan questions whether the socioeconomic status of students should be a factor when rating schools. 

In a video posted on the state department of education's website, he challenges some of the questions he's heard recently about poor students and their success.

"But the kids in our school are poor, so it's not fair to hold this to the same standard as schools with wealthier students," he says on the video, repeating a statement he said he has heard recently.

"But let's take a deep breath here to think about that," he continues on the video. "Are we saying that poor students can’t learn? Are we saying that it's not the job of public education to teach all kids, regardless of income or race or culture and we can't get growth from where they came to us? Why should we expect less from certain students?"

But socioeconomics does matter and the current ranking system penalizes schools that take in students from disadvantaged backgrounds, experts say. 

Once the economic status of students are factored in, some of the schools that are rated by the state as the worst, turn into among the best, according to an analysis by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. For example, the Mackinac Center determined Thirkell Elementary School in Detroit was the highest-performing elementary or middle school in the state on its report card. The Michigan Department of Education gave it an "F" rating. The state doesn’t take student economic background into consideration.

By contrast, schools with a low percentage of students living in poverty may have it better when it comes to student achievement, said Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center.

For example, Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe was ranked by the state in the top 1 percent of schools in Michigan. But Brownell received a "B" from the Mackinac Center, in part because only 4 percent of its students were eligible for free lunch program in 2012-13. By comparison, Pasteur Elementary School in Detroit had 70 percent of its students eligible for the free lunch program received an "A" ranking from the Mackinac Center. The state rated it among the bottom 9 percent of schools.

"We saw that so many of their students come from privileged backgrounds so we expect them to score better," Spalding said about Brownell. "They likely have access to more educational opportunities outside of school and it's less a reflection of the school and more a reflection of their opportunities."

Legislation has been proposed that would create an A-F grading system for schools and would place greater emphasis on student academic growth. House Bill 5112 is scheduled for a hearing this week, said Rob Macomber, legislative director for Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto.

Spalding said student growth is a measurement less impacted by family poverty.

MDE Spokesman Martin Ackley said the state does focus on student growth.

"In our accountability systems, we focus on student growth," Ackley said in an email. "[T]hat way, schools that educate large numbers of low-income students still can get recognized for improvement. 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."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from the Michigan Department of Education.


See also:

The Debate Over School Rankings

Michigan Department of Education Response To Mackinac Center 'Top to Bottom' Study

Study: Michigan School Rankings Mostly Measure Poverty, Not Quality

Flawed State Rankings Mean Some Principals Are Out of a Job

State Report Card Ranks Some Top Schools Near the Bottom

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.