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.

Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.