BEN DEGROW: How to revamp Michigan’s school rating system

The Michigan Department of Education will soon launch a listening tour for school employees and citizens to chime in about how to implement the new federal education law. The recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act gives states some greater flexibility in setting several policies, including how they measure and report school performance.

Michigan should use the law as an occasion to revamp its school rating system and change how it’s reported to parents. It needs a fairer measuring tool that doesn’t punish schools for enrolling a lot of kids with learning struggles. The state can both acknowledge the challenges facing students and schools and uphold high standards.

For years, Mackinac Center analysts have criticized the state’s Top-to-Bottom Rankings, which too closely tie school quality measures to rates of student poverty. The Center’s Context and Performance Report Cards – including a forthcoming new edition of the high school version – grade schools on how well they do in comparison with their predicted performance based on the average socio-economic status of their students.

ESSA will require Michigan to rank most schools based on a combination of raw achievement scores and student academic growth. (High schools can substitute or complement a measure of growth with graduation rates.) As the state updates its system, an extra component that compares schools of like demographics could add some needed balance.

The quality of reading instruction at a school like Kent County’s North Godwin Elementary looks mediocre or weak when compared to the state proficiency rate. But matched up against other Michigan schools serving students with similar demographics, North Godwin is at the top of the chart.

By the same token, a full portrait of school performance cannot lean too heavily on comparisons, especially not in the upper grades. Students entering society and the job market will not be strictly compared to others from the same strata of family background. A ranking system needs to be designed so that it both recognizes the challenges students bring in the door and pushes schools and students to close achievement gaps over time. It also needs to raise the bar for everyone.

A key way to balance these concerns is to adopt a better metric of academic growth. The student growth percentile being promoted by the Michigan Department of Education creates real limitations. This metric is rooted entirely in comparing a student’s yearly change to that of his academic peers, not to a fixed standard. Nearly all kids of a certain proficiency level could fall short of the trajectory they need to be proficient but still be deemed successful for growing at a faster rate than half of their peer group.

A school should measure how much students in every demographic group learn. But it should also get credit for how well the lowest and highest  sperformers improve. Students who are the most challenged or most academically accomplished often are the most easily neglected.

Florida has made good use of a system that credits schools for moving individual students up the proficiency scale. Michigan education officials have invested time and resources into grading on the curve, so there’s a temptation to keep what they have built. But the Florida-style approach is better, and it offers the added bonus of being less technically challenging to implement and oversee.

Under ESSA, Michigan also is encouraged to move beyond standardized assessments and graduation rates and give some other measurement a small but real role in measuring school quality. Many options are on the table. Officials should look for ways of measuring how achievement gaps are closed in the early grades. They also should look for ways to measure how well schools prepare students for a post-high school career, such as passing Advanced Placement tests, dual enrollment college courses or industry certifications.

All students need meaningful and easily understandable information about how well schools perform. This is especially true for parents whose children are stuck in failing schools. They need to know what better alternatives exist, such as a charter school or a Schools of Choice option that would benefit their child. Michigan can help these parents by giving each school a single, easy-to-understand, overall grade and then report these results regularly.

It won’t be enough to give grades to schools. The state also ought to clearly report how each school earned its grade. Did it get a C because its well-off students are relatively high-achieving but coasting along? Or is the middling grade the result of a school overcoming challenges and making some strides, but not quite where it needs to be yet? The state should keep and enhance its education dashboard to facilitate the judgments of parents and school leaders.

These are broad guidelines for a new school ranking system, and there are still a lot of details that need to be considered. But Michigan needs to shine a clearer spotlight on its schools if it wants to have an earnest attempt at improving them.

Ben DeGrow is the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions.