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West Michigan educators react to Mackinac Center study on 'flawed' school ranking system
mLive.com
By: Brian McVicar
October 11, 2013
It’s no secret that Godfrey Lee Superintendent Dave Britten isn’t a fan of the Michigan Department of Education’s Top-to-Bottom school rankings.

In August, he derided the rankings – based on graduation and student achievement data –on his blog, claiming they do little more than show what schools are serving the highest percentage of low-income students.

“It really is nothing more than another blinding flash of the obvious,” wrote Britten, whose district serves a significant number of students whose families struggle financially. “Did we really need another expensive system for identifying which schools and districts have higher rates of poverty than others?”

On Thursday, the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy echoed Britten’s criticism.

The organization released a study taking aim at the Top-to-Bottom system, saying it “risks penalizing schools based not on their actual performance, but rather on the portion of low-income students they happen to enroll.”

Britten’s blog post was quoted in the study.

“States have to have some way of ranking schools not only to meet federal guidelines but also because tax dollars are being used and people deserve to know how effectively their money is being spent,” Audrey Spalding, author of the study and director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, said in a statement. “But the method Michigan uses penalizes schools simply for enrolling more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Michigan’s Top-to-Bottom list was developed in the 2010-11 school year as part of the state’s approved federal No Child Left Behind waiver.

In its study, the Mackinac Center found more than half of a school’s ranking on the 2012-13 list could be “explained by the portion of students enrolled who qualified for a federally subsidized free lunch.” It also found the list is more closely correlated with school poverty than similar rankings used by other states.

“Other surveyed states measure the achievement gap between traditionally disadvantaged and more advantaged students, instead of measuring the relative size of the achievement gap between the top-and bottom-scoring 30 percent of students as Michigan does,” the study says. “Multiple states measure the academic growth of low-scoring students in each school as an indicator of overall school performance.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt said he agrees with the Mackinac Center’s findings.

“Using a Top-to-Bottom list based solely on one-size-fits-all test scores – that’s inherently stacked against school districts with a high poverty, high needs student population,” he said. “This report is further evidence of this inherent and glaring discrepancy.”

The report also laid out suggestions aimed at increasing school choice for students who attend low performing schools, effectively empowering “parents to put the pressure on these schools to improve by making it easier for them to ‘vote with their feet’ and enroll in another school of their choice.”

The suggestions included funding districts that serve students outside their own borders, providing extra funding to charter schools opening near low-ranked schools, removing all geographic barriers to Michigan’s “Schools-of-Choice” program and requiring all districts to enroll nonresident students transferring from low-ranked schools.

And that's where the opinions of area educators and the Mackinac Center diverge.

Britten disagreed with the recommendations, saying they don’t address “inequality in school funding,” which he considers the root cause of achievement gaps among low-income students.

“Schools need funding that’s based on the need of the student,” he said. “Right now we have a funding system in Michigan that’s not based on anything of any rationality.”

Helmholdt also objected to the recommendations.

“The conversation in Michigan must now turn toward quality,” he said. “A free for all wild west of school choice and charter schools is not the solution.”

Email Brian McVicar and follow him on Twitter

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