To comply with state and federal requirements, the Michigan Department of Education developed a ranking list for schools that attempts to measure school quality. This “Top-to-Bottom” ranking has been repeatedly criticized by school officials for appearing to be correlated with school poverty rates: Schools that serve more lower-income students tend to receive lower scores on the TTB list.

This study examines this issue and finds evidence that there is a statistically meaningful relationship between a school’s poverty rate and its TTB ranking. Indeed, 55 percent of a school's ranking on the 2012-2013 TTB list could be explained by the portion of students enrolled who qualified for a federally subsidized free lunch. The study also finds that Michigan’s TTB list is more highly correlated with school poverty rates than similar rankings in several other states.

These results matter because TTB rankings are used to impose consequences on low-ranking schools. Such a system risks penalizing schools based not on their actual performance, but rather on the portion of low-income students they happen to enroll. This study suggests that Michigan should look at how other states rank schools in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of penalizing schools for simply serving more disadvantaged students.

A survey of seven other states reveals the uniqueness of Michigan’s ranking methodology, especially with regard to the way it measures how well schools serve low-scoring students. 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. Multiple states measure the academic growth of low-scoring students in each school as an indicator of overall school performance.

Consequences for low-ranking schools are also compared among these states. Michigan mandates particular staffing reforms for low-ranked schools in response to state and federal requirements. These include firing the school principal, replacing a majority of the staff, reopening the school as a charter school or even closing the school.

Other states incorporate more choice-based accountability into their school assessment system by permitting parents to transfer their children out of low-ranked schools and enroll them into higher ranked ones at state expense, including private schools in some cases. This study identifies several similar options that would bring this type of accountability to Michigan: 1) Fund districts that serve students outside their own borders; 2) Provide extra financial support to charter schools opening near low-ranked schools; 3) Remove all geographic barriers to Michigan’s “Schools-of–Choice” program; and 4) Require districts to enroll nonresident students transferring from low-ranked schools, subject to reasonable enrollment limitations.

This study suggests that Michigan should reconsider both the methodology used for the state’s TTB school ranking list and the state-imposed consequences levied on low-ranked schools. It also makes the case that a choice-based accountability system is preferred above any other, as it would allow students to escape schools that are not serving their needs and reduce the risk of penalizing undeservedly low-ranked schools.