2012-09-27 / Editorial

Achievement gap focus may penalize districts

Guest Opinion
By Audrey Spalding

Northville Public Schools boasts some of the highest-achieving schools in the state. Northville’s Amerman Elementary School scored in the 98th percentile of the Michigan Department of Education’s top-to-bottom ranking of schools, and most of the district’s schools scored better than at least 90% of schools statewide.

Yet, three of Northville’s schools — including Amerman Elementary — have been identified by the MDE as “focus schools.” This new label identifies schools with the largest achievement gaps between the top 30% of student test scores and the bottom 30%. More than 350 Michigan schools are in this category.

The focus category is one of three designations MDE uses to judge school performance. About 280 schools are categorized as “reward schools,” because they have reported high student achievement levels or growth. Another 146 schools are marked “priority schools” for being in the bottom 5% statewide.

It certainly is important for all Michigan students to receive a quality education, regardless of socioeconomic background. But a narrow focus on the achievement gap can mask mediocrity and discourage diversity. Though it is applied to the largest number of schools, the focus label conveys no information about whether students are scoring poorly on state tests, or whether student outcomes are improving. It merely indicates that there is a larger variation among students within a particular building.

Consider Detroit Public Schools’ Edison Elementary, which scored in the bottom 6% of Michigan schools. Edison’s ranking is just high enough to keep it from being labeled a priority school, and its students’ test scores are uniform enough to pass the state’s focus school measure. Yet, Edison Elementary is likely struggling far behind Amerman Elementary.

Not only does MDE’s focus school measure overlook broad mediocrity, it also ignores student growth. If young students enter schools with a wide range of academic abilities, a snapshot of the gap among them will reveal nothing about whether the school is satisfactorily educating those students, or reducing that gap over time.

Moreover, the achievement gap focus may penalize districts that are providing new opportunities for students and diversifying their schools through Michigan’s “schools of choice” program. If a district participates in schools of choice, students who do not live within that district can choose to attend it, and state funding will follow those students to their preferred schools. Low-performing students may be more likely to choose a different school, and this behavior could result in increased academic achievement gaps in traditionally higher performing districts that have opened their doors to more students.

A better way to measure student academic performance and school quality is to determine if schools are improving student educational outcomes, and by how much. Schools should help both students who enter the public education system at an educational disadvantage, and those who enter with a head start.

Focusing on individual student growth is not unprecedented. Florida’s public schools are graded heavily on individual student academic growth. In fact, schools receive more points toward their total grade if previously low-achieving students make greaterthan expected gains. Since implementing this measure, Florida students have made some of the largest gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress, commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

The Michigan Department of Education could follow Florida’s lead by measuring individual student growth in a given year, then using that information to grade schools. Such a “value-added” measure would not penalize schools for taking in students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it would reward schools that boost student outcomes the most.

Audrey Spalding is an education policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland. This piece first appeared in the Sept. 16 edition of the Detroit Free Press.

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