Is Detroit Public Schools' Thirkell Elementary a remarkable success or an abysmal failure? It depends on who you ask.
Excellent Schools Detroit just named the DPS school one of the top Detroit-area schools. The organization reviewed more than 100 conventional, charter and private schools, and graded schools on test scores (both proficiency and growth), teacher and student surveys, and unannounced in-person observations.
Thirkell posted test scores above the state average in reading and math, even though more than 86 percent of its students come from low-income backgrounds. The school also received high scores for its culture of academic achievement and its community relationships.
Thirkell Principal Clara Smith told the Detroit Free Press that parent involvement is critical, and that parents often volunteer at the school. Smith said that outside organizations have partnered with the school to provide tutoring and extra instruction.
But, according to the state, Thirkell is failing. On the Michigan Department of Education’s Top-to-Bottom list, Thirkell scored in the bottom 2 percent of all Michigan schools. While being identified as a top school by Excellent Schools Detroit may cause more parents to enroll their children at Thirkell in the future, being ranked poorly by the state has negative repercussions.
Most importantly, schools that are ranked in the bottom 5 percent for three consecutive years could be subject to being taken over by the state Education Achievement Authority. Legislation is being considered to expand the EAA, and the bill would continue to use a school's ranking on the state Top-to-Bottom list to identify schools for takeover.
Schools are ranked on the state Top-to-Bottom list by three main factors: Average student test performance (50 percent of a school’s grade), student academic growth (25 percent of a school’s grade) and the achievement gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students (25 percent of a school’s grade). The state does not take into account student socioeconomic background, which can have a large impact on student academic performance.
MDE labels schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Michigan schools as "priority" schools. Priority schools are required to implement a "reform" or "redesign" plan," which can include firing the principal and half of the school’s teachers. Priority schools were also required this year to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funding to, among other things, provide transportation of resident students to other schools.
Thirkell Elementary’s presence at the bottom of the state’s Top-to-Bottom list should warrant investigation into how the state ranks schools. Thirkell might be a fluke, but it is also possible that the state ranking methodology is flawed.
The Mackinac Center recently published a public high school report card that graded schools on student academic performance and took into account student socioeconomic background. Some of the highest-scoring schools on that report card were ranked poorly by the state. Cesar Chavez Academy High School, the second-highest-ranked high school, was ranked by the state in the bottom 14 percent of Michigan schools. Nearly 83 percent of Cesar Chavez students are from low-income backgrounds.
Since half of a school’s TTB rank is based on absolute performance, most schools at the bottom of the list are those where the majority of students come from low-income backgrounds. If the state must generate central rankings for public schools, it should give the most weight to individual student academic growth.
Of course, the best way to provide accountability for failing schools would be to allow parents greater freedom and flexibility to choose the best school for their child, and allow state funding to fluidly follow students to the schools of their choice. No MDE official is capable of collecting all the information necessary to determine the best school for each of Michigan’s 1.5 million students.
Officials should take a closer look at the state’s Top-to-Bottom ranking system. It would be a tragedy if schools that are effectively serving students were misidentified as priority schools and penalized. The worst thing for students at mislabeled schools would be to replace a stellar principal and teaching team or for the state to take over an effective school.
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