Up and down

How changes to Michigan’s school ranking system hurt Cass Tech — and helped the DeVos family charter school

Detroit's selective Cass Technical High School saw its state ranking sink by 57 points in 2016 — one of dozens of Michigan schools that saw dramatic swings in their rankings after Michigan changed the tests kids take and the formula behind the rankings.

Some of Detroit’s most celebrated selective schools saw their standings plunge on the state’s most recent school rankings.

Renaissance High School was one of the highest ranked schools on Michigan’s 2014 Top to Bottom schools list, scoring in the 98th percentile, better than 98 percent of state schools. But when the state in January released its latest ranking, based on 2016 test scores, the school had dropped to the 48th percentile, putting it slightly below the state average.

Cass Technical High School dropped 57 points, from the 78th percentile in 2014 to the 21st percentile in 2016. (There was no 2015 list).

And the Bates Academy, a selective elementary school in northwest Detroit, dropped from the 86th percentile in 2014 to the 34th percentile last year.

The nosediving rankings could be alarming to parents and educators, but testing experts say the dramatic swings say more about a rating system that’s been in turmoil in recent years than it does about individual schools.

The state’s decision to change both the way it tests students and the way it translates student scores into a ranking means that dozens of schools saw their standings sink or soar by 50 or more points between 2014 and 2016 — far more movement than experts say can be explained by typical changes in schools from one year to the next.

Yet the rankings have created image problems for schools like Cass and Renaissance that saw their standings tank. They’ve made schools — like the Grand Rapids charter school founded by billionaire Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, the U.S. Education Secretary — look like they’ve made extraordinary improvements in just two short years. And they’ve raised questions about how officials can use the rankings to make crucial decisions such as which schools should be targeted for closure or intervention.

“It’s a very crude measure that’s being used to make a very important decision,” said Edward Roeber, who served as the state’s top testing official from 2003 to 2007.

The state’s plan to close as many as 38 schools based on the rankings is largely on hold for now as the affected districts negotiate improvement plans with the state, but the low-rated schools remain in danger of being closed next year.

And they’re not the only ones feeling the pain of the changing measures. Even higher-performing schools are trying to figure out where they stand this year and how they’ll fare next year when the state is expected to respond to a new federal law by scrapping the Top to Bottom list and replacing it with a new system.

“It’s difficult because the target keeps moving and there’s this really public document called the Top to Bottom list that’s out there for the world to see,” said Danielle Jackson, the chief academic officer for the University Prep charter school network.

When University Prep Math and Science High School saw its ranking drop 50 points from the 69th percentile in 2014 to the 19th percentile last year, the network reached out to parents to make sure they understood that the ranking formula had changed and that after years of preparing students for the ACT, kids were suddenly faced with a different test — the SAT — instead.

But those explanations only go so far in cities like Detroit where parents have many options and children can enroll in district, charter, private or suburban schools.

Here, a school that falls in the rankings can have a harder time recruiting students, potentially damaging its ability to survive.

“We’re in a highly competitive environment,” Jackson said.

With stakes that high, it’s important that schools have clear goals to work toward — and right now they don’t, said Sarah Lenhoff, a Wayne State University education professor who specializes in school improvement and choice.

“They’re sending really different and mixed signals, both to schools about what they need to work on to improve and to parents and families about what this ranking means,” Lenhoff said.

Lenhoff ran an analysis of the 2014 and 2016 rankings that identified 74 Michigan schools that saw their rankings go up or down by 50 or more points between 2014 and 2016. That includes 31 schools that fell precipitously in the rankings and 43 that leapt from the bottom to the top.

More than 500 schools saw a change of at least 25 points — roughly a fifth of the more than 2,500 schools that were ranked in both 2014 and 2016.

“You’ve got to wonder,” Lenhoff said “ Did those schools change that drastically or is there something going on where their ranking is not capturing the quality of the school in all dimensions?”

One of the schools that enjoyed a giant leap was the West Michigan Aviation Academy, the Grand Rapids charter school founded by the DeVos family.

That school went from the 32nd percentile in 2014 to the 87th percentile last year.

Does that mean it got better?

Maybe, or maybe not, said Sunil Joy, the assistant director of policy and research for Education Trust Midwest, a school advocacy organization.

“Michigan has by far one of the most complex accountability systems in the country and that makes it really difficult for the public and educators and schools to really understand what’s behind the calculation,” Joy said. “With such an overly complex system, you can’t really pinpoint what happened.”

State officials say they know that their rating system has been mercurial.

Not only have the exams behind the the ratings changed from the MEAP to the M-STEP in elementary and middle school and from the ACT to the SAT in high school, but the state also made major changes to the formula it uses to calculate rankings.

The biggest change to the formula was the state’s decision not to factor a school’s so-called achievement gap into its final score in 2016.

The achievement gap, which measures the difference between the highest-performing and lowest-performing students in a school, accounted for 25 percent of a school’s ranking in 2014 but wasn’t part of the 2016 ranking because officials feared that gap scores had been artificially inflating the rankings of low-achieving schools where nearly all students posted low test scores.

The state also changed the way it measures whether students improved from one year to the next.

So if a school dropped in the rankings, it could be because students have not adapted well to the new exams. Or the school could have lost points to the new formula.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been so busy with (responding to the new federal education law), we haven’t really had a chance to look into the old data,” said Chris Janzer, who heads the school accountability office at the state education department.

The principals of Cass Tech, Renaissance and Bates did not respond to requests for comment about the schools’ drop in the rankings. A spokeswoman for the Detroit Public Schools Community District declined to comment.

Janzer said recent changes to the ranking system were intended to be the last major tweaks for a while. But a new federal law that passed in 2015 is expected to force another big change. The state has for months been discussing a shift to a letter grade rating system but the AP reported Monday that letter grades are off and a school report card could be in.

Critics of the frequent changes make “a valid point,” Janzer said. “When we’re charged with designing a new system, we push for a lengthy life span for it.”

But the education department has limited control at a time when state lawmakers, partisan politics and federal law have all had a hand in altering the way Michigan students and schools have been judged in recent years.

The Education Department told schools and the federal government that there would be no high-stakes consequences for test scores in 2015 and 2016 because schools needed time to adapt to new exams and a new rating system.

But a different state office, the School Reform Office, which Gov. Snyder moved out of the Education Department in 2015 so it would report to him, announced last summer that it wasn’t held to the department’s commitments. The reform office said it was obliged to follow a new law requiring the state to shut down every Detroit school that had been in the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row. The office said it would apply the mandate to the entire state.

The education department did not release its Top to Bottom list in 2015, but the School Reform Office put out a limited list last year identifying schools that were in the bottom five percent in 2015.

When the full 2016 Top to Bottom list came out in January, the reform office announced that 38 schools that appeared at the bottom of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 lists were in danger of closing.

The closings have been postponed for at least 18 months but it’s not clear what will happen to those schools next year — or to the 35 schools that were put on notice that they could be closed in 2018 if students don’t do well on this year’s exams.

It can be a tough environment in which to teach kids, Jackson said, but she says she tries to tune out the noise.

“This is the reality,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury to kind of roll up in a ball on the floor and cry. I don’t have the luxury to get on the soap box and talk about ‘This isn’t fair.’ My job is to state the facts to my team and to be able to respond in the most responsible way without making the school a place where kids only come to be drilled on tests.”

Still, Jackson called on the state to settle on one rating and “hold this target steady.”

“I surely hope that we can be really, really clear,” she said. “The most underserved students in our community deserve an opportunity to be successful and stability is a very, very big part of making that happen.”

For the full list of Michigan school rankings in 2014 and 2016, click here.

The new boss

Detroit superintendent pick Nikolai Vitti: I’ve been ‘drafted by my home team’

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti visits classrooms in Duval County, Florida on the first day of school in 2016.

Florida Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said learning this week that has been selected to run Detroit schools was like learning he’d been “drafted by my home team.”

Vitti, who grew up in Dearborn Heights but has lived in North Carolina, New York and Florida throughout his career, is now the superintendent of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

Vitti on Wednesday issued a statement celebrating his selection:

When I learned of the board’s decision last night it felt as if it were announced that I was drafted by my home team. It was a proud moment for my entire family and I. To be selected as the first superintendent by the newly elected board and new district is humbling and an honor. I look forward to working through the contract phase of the process as soon as possible in order to serve the children and families of Detroit.

The new Detroit school board, which took office in January, voted unanimously Tuesday night to start contract talks with Vitti in hopes that he will take over the district by July 1. He beat out River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman for the job.

The board said Tuesday night that it would ask Vitti to work on a transition team with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather as he prepares to take over the district. Meriweather was the preferred candidate of many Detroiters but was eliminated from consideration for the permanent position last month after school board members decided they wanted someone with at least three years of experience running a school district.

Daunting challenges

Rebuilding trust and filling classrooms: What Detroiters say new schools chief Nikolai Vitti should tackle first

Duval County Public Schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who was selected this week to lead Detroit's main school district, reads this week to students at Woodlawn Acres in Florida with his wife, Rachel Vitti. (photo via Twitter).

Nikolai Vitti, the Florida school leader selected this week to run Detroit schools faces many steep challenges. Among the most daunting: He’ll be working with people who wanted someone else to get the job.

“Educators wanted Alycia Meriweather,” said Andrea Jackson, a college advisor at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, an eastside high school.

Meriweather has led the district as interim superintendent for over a year and had been the top choice of many district administrators, community leaders, and city teachers. She was eliminated from consideration last month when the board decided it wanted someone with at least three years of superintendent experience.

That decision sparked angry protests, but the board moved ahead with interviewing two finalists and Tuesday night voted to negotiate a contract with Vitti for the top job.

“Dr. Vitti should work side by side with Meriweather as Assistant Superintendent,” the district’s teachers union said in a statement about the appointment that focused first on its disappointment that she had not been considered.

“With that said,” the union’s statement continued, “we look forward to working with Dr. Vitti. The district is faced with several important issues: contract negotiations with labor unions, the return of Education Achievement Authority schools, budget stability,  retaining staff, and filling teaching vacancies.”

Indeed, when Vitti starts by July 1, he’ll face a long to-do list — and pressure from educators, students and community leaders to make his priorities match their own. Here’s what some say he should focus on:

 

Rebuilding trust

Meriweather has said she wants to stay in Detroit to keep working for its students, and the new superintendent is “going to have to come and work with her. Period,” Jackson said. “You cannot come into a city like this and be an effective leader without the voice of the community and support of the community and it would be a significant blow if he did not work side-by-side with Alycia Meriweather.”

And if Meriweather is not personally involved in the new administration, many Detroiters are urging the new superintendent to make her ideas and plans a part of his agenda.

“I have heard repeatedly from teachers and principals, current and retired, over and over again, how [this year under Meriweather] is the first time in years that people have a sense of optimism and hope in a DPS superintendent,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit city councilwoman who leads a voter education organization and community action group called CitizenDetroit.

The new superintendent, she said, “should start by reaching out to teachers and acknowledging and appreciating the level of disappointment that’s coming from them and from many parents and attempt to offer an agenda that will …begin to build the level of trust that Superintendent Meriweather was able to build,”

Meriweather did not respond to a request for comment. But people who’ve followed her work say the new superintendent should be careful about coming in with his own agenda and tearing up work she’s done.

“He is going to have to rally the troops,” said Tanisha Manningham, the principal of Denby High School on Detroit’s east side, which is returning to the main Detroit district this summer. “He’s going to have to earn their trust and [that means] maybe looking at what Alycia started and maybe not totally disrupting that.”

 

Addressing the teacher shortage

The district has more than 200 vacant teaching positions — forcing schools across the city to cram far too many students in far too few classrooms.

“There are always over 45 kids in my classes and there are only 30 desks,” said Alondra Alvarez, 17, a junior at Western International High School in southwest Detroit where she said students pull up two chairs to every desk and struggle to pay attention. “It’s so loud,” she said, “and my teacher tries to have a lot of control but it’s hard.”

One way to recruit more teachers is to pay them more, said Ivy Bailey, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which is currently negotiating a new contract with Meriweather that the new superintendent will have to execute. The average Detroit teacher made $57,793 last year, putting district salaries behind many suburban districts and charter schools.

But attracting and retaining teachers goes beyond pay, Bailey said, especially after years in which state-appointed emergency managers imposed many changes in the district.

“People are very distrusting and rightfully so,” she said. “The challenge is going to be creating trust and respect.”

She added, “We need to raise student achievement but you can’t come in here with an iron fist to get that done. … They are always trying to do something to teachers without teacher input.”

Manningham, the principal at Denby, added that the new superintendent should find ways to pay bonuses to help bring teachers’ salaries up to the level of their suburban colleagues and should look for ways to help teachers improve their skills and advance in their careers.

Jackson said even small gestures would help.

“They have to create business partnerships to send teachers out to dinner, out to lunch,” she said. “We need to be rewarded after 18 years with no raise … We need a DPS teacher appreciation program. Teachers and staff are DPS’ biggest resources and the district can’t sustain itself with a constant turnover of teachers and staff.”

 

Improving student attendance

Detroit schools have one of the highest rates of chronically absent students in the country. Meriweather told the school board earlier this year that a stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — more than 23,000 kids — missed two or more days of schools per month, making it difficult for educators to have much impact.

Manningham said absent students are the biggest challenge she faces at Denby and called on the new superintendent to look into expanding school bus transportation.

“We don’t provide yellow buses in high school and a lot of time [city buses] are running late or buses don’t show up,” she said.

 

Devising creative solutions

Manningham called on the new superintendent to use “courageous creativity” to manage schools. She said principals should be given flexibility to adapt their budgets and curricula to allow for innovations that would help their students.

She suggested, for example, that Vitti create a more streamlined system of dual credit programs that let kids earn high school and college credits at the same time. Some dual credit programs exist now in the district, but they’re limited to certain schools and not part of a citywide connection with local colleges.

 

Promoting extracurriculars

At many city schools, budget cuts have squeezed out many of the “extras” that make school engaging for students. The new superintendent should “focus on reopening the swimming pools, marching band, arts, music, dance, and home economics programs to increase career opportunities for students,” Jackson said.

These programs would “increase college scholarship opportunities for students  and decreases fights, conflicts and negative behaviors among students,” she said.

 

Adding more counselors

To help schools meet students’ needs, the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor per 250 students. Few if any Detroit schools achieve that level of staffing — meaning that students’ considerable needs are not always addressed.

We need a lot more counselors,” said Alvarez, the Western International student. “I go to school with 2,000 kids and there’s only three counselors to turn to … They have to fix your schedule and be there to talk with you but with 2,000 kids, counselors are stressed out themselves.”

 

Maintaining tight financial controls

The legislative maneuver last summer that created a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District freed Detroit schools from debilitating historic debt, but low enrollment continues to harm the district financially.

The new superintendent needs to have a “very clear strategy to ensure that the financial resources are in the classrooms for the purpose of educating children,” said Cockrel of CitizenDetroit.

 

Increasing enrollment

Attracting more families to the district will require a mix of all of the above, plus stronger programs that would give families a reason to trust that the district is improving. Vitti promised during his public interview to try multiple strategies to woo back families that have departed for charter and suburban schools.

Jackson called on the new superintendent to try marketing the rebranded district. He should promote “the good news of previous successful students doing well after K-12,” she said. “What’s currently happening in DPSCD and what’s to come. This will automatically increase enrollment.”