Audrey Spalding Testimony on House Bill 5112

(Editor’s note: Audrey Spalding, director of education policy, delivered this testimony to the Michigan House Education Committee on Nov. 13, 2013.)

Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on House Bill 5112. My name is Audrey Spalding, and I am the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy. The Center recently published a study of Michigan’s school ranking system and compared it to other states. Today, I am here to present those findings as you consider reworking the way the state ranks schools.

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Broadly, the purpose of a statewide accountability system is to send a performance signal to schools and to provide helpful information to parents. Thus, it is critical for any accountability system to measure a school’s actual impact on students.

Though it is the product of much time and effort, Michigan’s Top-to-Bottom ranking does not appear to be measuring school quality. Rather, it appears to be a measure of student poverty, something schools cannot control. And a grading system that merely reflects poverty is no measure of quality. 

If you plot school Top-to-Bottom rankings against the percentage of students eligible for free lunch, you will get a clear downward sloping diagonal line because there is a very strong relationship between the two.

Put another way, if the Department of Education were to rank schools on poverty alone, about half of Michigan schools wouldn’t see their grades change.

This is an especially critical issue because real consequences are tied to these rankings, including principal termination, the threat of school closure and proposed legislation that would use these rankings to identify schools for state takeover.

It is an undisputed fact that socioeconomic background impacts how students score overall on standardized tests. School officials, education researchers, teachers and parents have known this for decades. Indeed, Grand Valley State University, Michigan’s highest-rated authorizer of charter public schools, takes socioeconomic status into account when measuring school success.

However, socioeconomic status’ impact on test scores does not mean that we should lower expectations for students or give up on accountability. Rather, it means that measuring school quality accurately is of the utmost importance.

In our study of the Michigan’s Top-To-Bottom list, we compared school rankings in this state to seven others. Michigan’s school ranking system has the greatest correlation — in other words, the strongest relationship — with student poverty. Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Ohio, Maine, Indiana and Arizona all have school ranking systems that penalize schools less for serving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They demonstrate that it is possible for states to abide by federal requirements and minimize the problem Michigan faces with its ranking system.

The majority of these states — Florida, Oklahoma, Maine, Indiana and Arizona — place a greater emphasis on student growth than Michigan. Arizona, which had the lowest relationship between student poverty and school grades, bases 25 percent of a school’s score on overall student growth and another 25 percent on the growth of the lowest-scoring quartile of students. Florida, Maine and Oklahoma follow this model as well.

A system that places a greater emphasis on student academic growth instead of absolute student scores would help address the problem of penalizing schools for educating lower-income students. If Michigan continues with its current system, it risks placing lower-income students at a disadvantage. Economists who helped the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education develop a value-added model of student growth for schools explained this problem succinctly in a recent study. They wrote that a system that penalizes schools which serve students from needy backgrounds could “result in a perpetuating cycle of destruction and re-invention of instructional practices at disadvantaged schools, whether these practices are effective or not.”

Consider Thirkell Elementary, a Detroit school that was rated very highly by Excellent Schools Detroit and recognized by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. And yet, according to the state Top-to-Bottom list, Thirkell is failing. If the state accountability system penalizes schools like Thirkell, it will be doing students a severe disservice.

Whatever you choose, I hope you consider the importance of an accountability system that measures school quality instead of one that simply is a proxy for student background.

Thank you for your consideration.