A better school ranking system

The Michigan Department of Education (MDOE) recently released their 2011 rankings of all of Michigan’s k-12 schools. They released two rankings. One clearly is a better measure than the other of relative school quality. One ranking is mandated by the federal government. The other was developed by MDOE. The reason there are two rankings is the feds refused to grant the state a waiver to use its ranking system. Big mistake by the feds!

Getting a rating system that reflect school quality matters. Both in terms of providing parents information on what schools to enroll their children in but also now for deciding which schools are going to be sanctioned and which aren’t. Last year was the first for this new ranking system where the bottom 5% of the schools listed were subject to severe sanctions. The state and administration basically adopted a system conforming with federal requirements.

To be frank, it was dreadful! Schools ended up on the lowest 5% list with higher student achievement than many that weren’t on the list. Talk about sending the wrong signal to students, parents and educators. As an example, Excellent Schools Detroit used its report card to choose schools to recommend to parents. At the high school level ESD used three year average ACT scores to rank schools. The lowest 5% list is overwhelmingly urban high schools (a big problem with the rankings in and of itself). One school on the ESD recommended list was on the lowest 5% list while dozens of schools (mainly charters and non Detroit traditional public schools) were not included because of poor student achievement.

MDOE did exactly what you would want. They listened to the critics (which included me), did their own assessment of the initial ranking system and improved it for this year. Ranking schools is hard. People are struggling with this across the country. The only way we are going to get a system that provides students, parents, educators and policy makers with rankings that reasonably reflect school quality is with continuous improvement.

The 2011 MDOE top to bottom rankings is a major step forward in assessing relative school performance. It includes two huge changes that were at the core of the rankings required by the feds: dividing schools into different pools based on all sorts of technical criteria that having nothing to do with student achievement and not including high school graduation as one of the criteria. In addition to those big fixes the new state rankings include all test subjects, not just reading and math. And ranks schools on achievement, improvement and the achievement gap between subgroups. All of which matter. (For detailed information on the two ranking systems start here.)

Using a better metrics gets you far different – and more accurate – results. The bottom 5% in the new state rankings include a mix of school districts; elementary, middle and high schools; and both traditional public and charter schools. As anyone who works in education knows there are good and bad schools in every segment of k-12 schools. The state rankings reflect this, the old system did not. MDOE deserves much credit for developing an improved school ranking system. That the US Department of Education is standing in the way of full utilization of that system is really indefensible. We should work to reverse that.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.