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.

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.