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.

closing arguments

Three Detroit-area charter schools are set to close in June, but not all parents know

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Britney Love, a parent of a first-grader at Woodward Academy.

At least three Detroit-area charter schools will close in June after years of low test scores, leaving hundreds of families to scramble for new schools — including some who haven’t yet been notified.

The schools set to close include Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools. It opened near downtown Detroit in 1996. Also closing are the Starr Detroit Academy, which is located just across the city line in Harper Woods but serves primarily Detroit children, and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck.

All three schools are being closed for academic reasons, said Janelle Brzezinski, spokeswoman for the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees the schools.

“We’re committed to having high academic quality in our schools,” Brzezinski said. “We’ve always held our schools to a high standard.”

A fourth charter school overseen by Central Michigan is also in danger of closing. The Michigan Technical Academy in northwest Detroit was issued a “notice of intent” in February indicating that the university planned to revoke the school’s charter. The university is still reviewing the school’s response, Brzezinski said.

Michigan Technical Academy, which Chalkbeat featured last year, was among 38 Michigan schools threatened with closure by the state earlier this year for being in the bottom 5 percent of state school rankings for three years in a row. State officials have largely backed away from those plans for now, allowing districts to negotiate “partnership agreements” with the state to keep the schools open. Of those schools, 24 were in Detroit.

A press release from the state Education Department on Tuesday about the agreements said Michigan Technical Academy was being closed down by Central Michigan.

Brzezinski said the press release was not accurate.

“We were surprised by that statement,” she said.

The school closings are bound to surprise teachers and parents connected to the schools.

Families at the Starr Academy were notified that their school would close several weeks ago.  But at the Woodward Academy, where the school’s website as of Wednesday still said it was accepting applications for September, parents dropping their children off Wednesday morning said they had no idea their school would close.

“I’m kind of shocked because they had such a great program and the teachers are helpful. I’m actually very shocked,” said Porschua Reliford, 28, who just transferred her three kids into the school in January after a bad experience in a traditional district school.

“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Woodward is the third school that her two fifth-graders, Adrian, 10, and Lawrence, 11, have attended, she said. Her first-grader, Torence, 7, is on his second school.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools, is set to close.

Britney Love, 32, said she was told by the school’s principal just three weeks ago that the school would not be closing.

She was alarmed to hear a different report Wednesday morning.

“I need to find out because I need to be looking for another school,” she said. She has a five year-old entering kindergarten in September and a six-year-old now in the first grade at the school.

“I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too,” she said. “I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

Parents just finding out now that they need a new school for next year are already at a disadvantage because many of the city’s top district and charter schools have already begun their enrollment processes. Many schools had application deadlines that passed weeks or even months ago.

“Currently, the timing of when closures are announced and how our city’s enrollment processes work are not in any way aligned to meet the needs of the students and families,” said Maria Montoya, director of Enroll Detroit, an organization that assists families in overcoming enrollment barriers from preschool to college.

“In our work supporting families in securing placements, we hear time and time again from families that it doesn’t make sense to close a school for failing to perform and then not have enough higher quality options available to take on these students,” Montoya said, adding that she’s hopeful that recent conversations will lead to improvements.

Georgia Hubbard, Woodward’s chief academic officer, said the administration planned to inform parents on Friday.

“It’s very upsetting for all of us,” Hubbard said, as she angrily asked a reporter to leave the school’s parking lot Wednesday. “We have 520 children. We have 65 staff people. We are very emotional and very concerned about why they would make such a decision when our school is improving. We are devastated by what they’ve done to us and we definitely need time to orderly communicate this to our parents.”

Woodward has seen some recent improvement in its test scores. On last year’s state exam, 4.9 percent of the school’s students scored high enough to be considered proficient in math and reading, compared to 2.8 percent the year before. But the school is still one of the lowest-ranked schools in the state. It was ranked in the fourth percentile among Michigan schools last year.

Charter school authorizers in Michigan have come under fire in recent years for not holding charter schools accountable for low performance.

The quality of charter schools in the state and how they’re overseen by universities was one argument against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination hearings. Critics charge that DeVos has used her wealth and influence to block regulation of charter schools in the state.

Dan Quisenberry of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school organization, say these closures are not a response to the political climate.

On the contrary, he said, authorizers routinely shut down low-performing charter schools. Three charter schools were closed in Detroit last year, two closed in 2015, three in 2014 and five in 2013, he said.

Closing a school is “a traumatic thing,” Quisenberry said. “No one is saying it’s not. But the goal is to get [students] in a better place.”

Quisenberry’s organization is working with Enroll Detroit to help parents at the Starr Academy learn about other options, he said. The group invited nearby schools that are ranked above the 25th percentile on state rankings to meet with Starr Academy parents.

“I understand the disruption this causes,” Quisenberry said. “The question isn’t, is this ideal? The question is, if kids are in a school that’s not performing for them, should we leave them there? That just doesn’t make any sense.”

meet the new boss

Nikolai Vitti has been chosen to lead Detroit schools. Read the application that got him the job

PHOTO: Duval County Public Schools
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti meets with students on the first day of school in Duval County, Florida in 2016. He was selected in 2017 to lead Detroit schools.

In his job application to run Detroit schools, Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote that he was motivated to apply by his “deep and unwavering belief in urban public education” and his “love” for the city of Detroit.

Vitti, who grew up in in Dearborn Heights but has spent his career working in North Carolina, New York and Florida, wrote that the success of the new Detroit school board “will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record,experience, commitment, strength and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future.”

He then lays out his qualifications in a 26-page application that spells out his experience in great detail, including specifics on the work he’s done as superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville since 2012 and in his previous jobs. Read the full application below.

The Detroit school board voted last week to negotiate a contract with Vitti, though those contract negotiations won’t start until at least this week due to a challenge from an activist who claims the search process was illegal.

Vitit beat out another finalist, River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman for the job. To read Coleman’s application click here.