Michigan School Rankings Ignore Effects of Student Background

Expert calls socioeconomic status 'key' to measuring how much learning schools add

The Michigan Department of Education’s failure to incorporate students’ socioeconomic status in their high-stakes “Top To Bottom” rankings of public schools means the department is ignoring what is a prime determinant in academic achievement.

Schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent of the MDE’s rankings risk being taken over by the state and also could be closed.

Selcuk Sirin, an associate professor at New York University who has performed several academic studies on the topic, said a family’s expectations, how much they value educational achievement and the level of school-related activities in the home are partly determined by socioeconomic status.

Families from different status groups create different learning environments that affect the child’s academic achievement, he said.

According to Sirin, these and other factors make student socioeconomic status “one of the strongest correlates of academic performance.”

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“At the school level the effect is even stronger, with no comparison to any other known variable of interest,” Sirin said in an email.

Factoring in socioeconomic status can have a dramatic impact on assessments of how much a school is contributing to a child’s education. For example, Detroit’s Thirkell Elementary School was in the bottom 1 percentile of all schools in the state’s 2012-13 rankings. Almost 90 percent of Thirkell students come from low-income families.

When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy adjusted Michigan’s school performance ratings to incorporate the effect of student backgrounds, Thirkell shot from among worst performing schools to first place on the Center’s 2013 elementary and middle school report card. In other words, given the built-in challenges members of its student body face, Thirkell Elementary was doing more than any other school to advance students' education.

The state’s Top To Bottom rankings also slight charter public schools in favor of conventional schools because charters have a higher percentage of low-income students. In charter schools, 66.4 percent of students are eligible for free lunches, while 39.2 percent of conventional school students qualify. This is the most commonly used measure of students’ economic status.

“We do not include any demographics in TTB because inclusion of demographics would say that we should have different expectations for particular student groups,” said Martin Ackley, spokesman for the MDE.

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See also:

State School Rankings Mostly Measuring Race and Income Rather Than Performance

Flawed State Rankings Mean Some Principals Are Out of a Job

State Education Department Gives a Pass to Failing Districts; Punishes Charters

New Report Card Compares High School Test Scores and Adjusts For Economic Status

New Report Card Measures Elementary and Middle School Performance By Adjusting For Student Family Income

Almost 220,000 Michigan Students Rely On School Choice