How Michigan's School Rankings Aggravate Social Tensions

Holland schools doing better than the state indicates

The Michigan Department of Education’s refusal to incorporate students’ economic backgrounds into how it ranks school districts plays a role in a controversial discussion about a rise in the percentage of minority students in a western Michigan school district.

The Holland Sentinel recently did a story that said that giving parents the freedom to choose where to send their children has “fragmented” Holland Public Schools in terms of the racial makeup of its students.

The story quotes Superintendent Brian Davis as saying his district is like an urban district in a suburban community. The article cites population data that shows while the city is 80 percent white, only 38 percent of students in the school district are white.

Davis is quoted as saying that the school district’s more upper-middle to middle-class families left his district over the past 20 years and the academic test scores have suffered as a result.

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The state of Michigan penalizes Holland Public Schools not because it has seen more minority students over the years, but because it doesn’t get credit for having a high percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students — defined as those students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The Michigan Department of Education has said it doesn’t include any demographics in its rankings because doing so “would say that we should have different expectations for particular student groups.”

Holland Public Schools has 3,708 students in the current school year, of which 2,558 (69 percent) are considered economically disadvantaged. The district has seen an increase in the number of poorer students over the years. The 2006-07 school year is the earliest year for which the percentage of economically disadvantaged students that is available online. And that time, 50 percent of students in the school system were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

If the Michigan Department of Education incorporated socio-economic status into its high-stakes Top-to-Bottom academic rankings, Holland would benefit significantly. Schools have demoted administrators and consistently poor performing schools face the possibility of state takeover if they don't do well on the Top-to-Bottom rankings.

A comparison of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s rankings, which do incorporate the socio-economic status of students, and the Michigan Department of Education Top-to-Bottom rankings show that state isn’t recognizing Holland’s true academic achievements.

Holland High School finished in the 89th percentile in the Mackinac Center’s most recent rankings, while the high school was in the 27th percentile in the MDE rankings. The four other Holland schools showed similar gaps between the two methods of ranking school achievement:

  • West (K-7): 68th percentile in the MCPP rankings and 30th percentile in the MDE rankings
  • East (K-7): 68th percentile (MCPP), 15th percentile (MDE)
  • Jefferson (K-7): 71st percentile (MCPP), 19th percentile (MDE)
  • Holland Heights (K-7): 71st percentile (MCPP), 26th percentile (MDE)

“The research is clear, poverty does matter," Davis said in an email. "The factors of poverty should be taken into consideration when the state determines the academic successes of schools. Rest assured though, poverty should never be used as an excuse.”

Click here to see Davis’ full email response.

Michael Van Beek, the director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said Holland Public Schools is harmed by the MDE’s ratings.

“We’ve known for five decades that socio-economic status has a huge impact on student test scores,” Van Beek said.

John Austin, the president of the state School Board of Education, isn’t opposed to factoring in the socio-economic status of students when the state rankings are computed.

“If schools that did better with poor students, saw more achievement and/or student growth than the norm were ranked more successfully, it could be a potentially useful metric,” Austin said in an email.

And educational researchers have long understood the impact that socio-economic status has on a school's record of achievement.

“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, a senior fellow with the progressive Washington D.C.-based think tank The Century Foundation, in a recent Michigan Capitol Confidential story.


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