Charter schools in Michigan are at a disadvantage when it comes to the state’s high-stakes academic evaluations because a much higher proportion of their students come from economically disadvantaged households compared with the students who attend conventional school districts.

The state of Michigan rates the academic performance of individual schools using a system called Top-To-Bottom. And this system does not factor students’ socio-economic status into its calculations.

About 70 percent of the students in Michigan’s charter schools qualify for free or reduced-price federal lunch programs, which causes researchers inside and outside government to consider them economically disadvantaged and at-risk in school. In contrast, around 44 percent of the students attending conventional public school districts are considered economically disadvantaged. The data, for the 2015-16 school year, is from the state's Center for Educational Performance and Information.

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The impact of a student’s socio-economic status on academic achievement is widely recognized by education researchers.

“The socio-economic status of the family that a child comes from has long been the biggest predictor of academic achievement because low-income students face a number of disadvantages, on average, that more affluent children do not — limited access to good health care, nutrition, and stable housing, for example,” said Richard Kahlenberg in an email. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow with The Century Foundation, a progressive Washington D.C.-based think tank.

When test scores are adjusted to account for students’ financial backgrounds it can have a big impact how a school’s performance is reported.

For example, in 2013 the International Academy of Flint finished in the 44th percentile on the state’s Top-to-Bottom rankings. But the charter school’s 2012 performance earned it an A on a score card created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which does adjust performance to reflect students’ family backgrounds. The academy, a public charter school, also scored high on a similar ranking produced by the Center for Michigan.

“The methodology of the Top-to-Bottom rankings is nothing more than a proxy for poverty,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. “They don’t need 250 data points to rank schools on the Top-to-Bottom list. They need only rank schools by poverty alone and the list would be the same.”

An Education Trust-Midwest 2015 report that was critical of charter school academic performance referenced the state’s Top-To-Bottom rankings a dozen times. Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest said in an email she didn't think she could get a comment for this story before the deadline.

The Michigan Department of Education has said they focus on student growth in their rankings which allows for low-income students to be recognized for their improvement. The MDE said it doesn't believe they should have one assessment and accountability standard for schools with high numbers of low-income students and another standard for schools that don't have a lot of low-income students.


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