News Story

The Debate Over School Rankings

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has released a study that says the state of Michigan is using a flawed system to evaluate schools. As a result, schools are at risk of being penalized based not on their actual performance, but based on the portion of low-income students they enroll, according to the study.

A key flaw of the state's ranking system is that it fails to take into account the socioeconomic status of students, according to the Mackinac Center study.

Martin Ackley, director of the Office of Public and Government Affairs for the Michigan Department of Education, does not agree with the Mackinac Center study. 

"While the Michigan Department of Education appreciates the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's interest in Michigan's school accountability system, we respectfully disagree with recent findings it depicted in an article in CapCon ("Study: Michigan School Rankings Mostly Measure Poverty, Not Quality")," Ackley said. "The state's school ranking system noted in the article are not 'flawed,' as the story asserts. They are designed to identify specific education thresholds in public schools, and provide transparency from which schools can strategize and improve."

However, Rep. Thomas Hooker, R-Byron Center, who is a former teacher, said he thought the Mackinac Center study hit the nail on the head.

"As soon as this study came out I sent copies of it to every superintendent in my district," Rep. Hooker said. "After seeing the Mackinac Center study one superintendent said, 'Finally, somebody is listening.' "

Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, also a former teacher, said he thinks the Mackinac Center study brought important points to light and that the MDE ranking system is flawed.

"As a former teacher in an alternative school, I appreciate this study very much," Rep Genetski said. "I'm very discouraged about how the state apparently grades local school districts and buildings. I've seen a lot of alternative high schools closed because of it. With those closings a lot of alternative high school students end up as dropouts.

"I think the manner in which schools end up being evaluated is very foolish," he said.

Ackley explained some of the basic methodology of the state ranking system.

"Michigan's Top-to-Bottom (TTB) list ranks schools on their student academic performance in mathematics, reading, writing, science and social studies, as well as graduation rate data for high schools," Ackley said. "School performance components include student achievement; improvement (growth), and the achievement gaps between the highest and lowest scoring 30 percent of students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

"The purpose of the TTB rankings is to identify schools most in need of intervention. That's mostly a student proficiency issue, that, in some cases, can be correlated with poverty. Schools may compensate for low proficiency with high rates of improvement and small achievement gaps."

One of the key findings in the Mackinac Center study was that the MDE's rankings correlated strongly with socioeconomic status; much more strongly than many other states.

Rep. Hooker said he does not agree with the way the MDE uses achievement gaps.

"This thing where they measure the difference between the top performing students and the bottom makes no sense," he said. "You end up worrying about having too big of a split between your high performing students and the low performing ones. What are you supposed to do? Do you put all of the effort on the bottom and then those on the top drop?"

Ackley said the MDE ranking system is based on a premise that low-income students can achieve proficiency.

"There are many schools in Michigan with low-income students who are able to achieve student proficiency and student academic growth," Ackley said. "We identify these schools as 'Beating The Odds' schools. ...Low-income students actually can, and do, meet academic proficiency levels. That is reality.

"Would we like to see more students, and more schools, reach these levels of achievement? Absolutely," Ackley continued. "It is being done in nearly 70 low-income schools now, and every low-income school would do their students a great service by replicating the strategies in place at these 'Beating the Odds' schools.”

Ackley said the Mackinac Center study does not place enough weight on proficiency.

"The study cited in the article seemingly downplays academic proficiency's importance in student assessments," Ackley said. "We have serious concerns that this would give an escape hatch to schools not able to raise low-income student performance. Further, just because a school is low income and low performing does not mean it should be not be held academically accountable. Nor should we lower expectations for such schools. We are certain that the parents and communities want the best education for their children, without excuses.

"We challenge many of the claims the study uses in regard to all of the quality measures used to develop the annual TTB list," Ackley added. "And we flatly disagree with the Center's assertion that it somehow penalizes schools for their enrollment of low-income students."

Rep. Hooker said the state's ranking system fails to take into account the realities educators are up against in many low-income districts.

"Wyoming Public, Godfrey Lee and Godwin Heights, are districts in the northern part of my district and face realities that are exactly what this (Mackinac Center) study found," Rep. Hooker said. "We see situations where they have to deal with 70 percent Hispanic students, of which 44 percent are speaking either little or no English.

"I know that it is important to have accountability and to measure progress," he continued. "I know we need to have standards. But they (the state) need to account for the fact that some of these districts aren't dealing with same raw materials as others are."

Ackley said the MDE ranking system strives to identify struggling students and help them get the assistance they need.

"Federal Title I funds are designed for the express purpose of improving the achievement of low-income students, and TTB rankings help identify low-performing schools so they can receive targeted, additional resources, support and attention," Ackley said.

However, the state's assessments can unfairly cost good school administrators their jobs because one of the corrective measures the state allows is to remove principals at the end of the year if schools are deemed low performing.

"I've heard about a situation with a school district where they might have to fire their principal at the end of the year," Rep. Hooker said. "According to the superintendent, what happened was that they (the district) had some poor results because of a particular group of students who were coming through. It's a rural district with a small student population, so this group had a significant impact.

"The principal looks like a dummy now, but if he kept his job, in a few years he would look like a genius," Rep. Hooker continued. "They can pretty much tell that already because of another group of kids they know is coming up from the lower grades."

Another effect of the MDE ranking system is that it can chase students and good teachers away from districts with high percentages of low incomes students, Rep. Hooker said.

"With the way the state measures, you can take the same teacher, teaching the same area, math or whatever the subject, teaching exactly the same way and with one group of students they'll be considered a failure, but with another they'll be considered outstanding," Rep. Hooker said. "Where is the incentive for teachers to teach in districts that have a high percentage of kids who qualify for free lunch? Even those who are talented and dedicated will be driven away from those districts. You can lose your job for teaching exactly the same way that would be considered successful elsewhere.

“And when the results of these measurements hit the news media, and parents hear that the school their kids are in is failing, a lot of good parents will make a mad dash to get their kids out."

Ackley said the state should not create separate sets of standards based on the socioeconomic make up of school districts.

"We shouldn't have two standards to hold schools accountable; one for schools with low-income students and one for schools that don't," Ackley said.

Ackley stressed that the MDE ranking system is a diagnostic tool.

"Yet, as with every accountability system designed with input from experts across-the-board, we are open to thoughtful and accurate suggestions," Ackley said.

Rep. Hooker said the MDE ranking system is micro-managing local school districts.

"The state has taken steps forward in recent years by giving them (local school administrators) the tools to do their job," Rep. Hooker said. "But now they should back off and let them use those tools to do the job."

To view the full MDE response to the MCPP study, click here.


A video about the Mackinac Center study:


See also:

Michigan Department of Education Response To Mackinac Center 'Top to Bottom' Study

Study: Michigan School Rankings Mostly Measure Poverty, Not Quality

Flawed State Rankings Mean Some Principals Are Out of a Job

State Report Card Ranks Some Top Schools Near the Bottom