On April 30, 2013, Principal William Patterson was removed from Jackson’s Middle School at Parkside, due to the grade his school received from the Michigan Department of Education.[1] This decision may have seemed puzzling to some, as Patterson had been rated “outstanding” by a company Jackson Public Schools hired to train and evaluate its school leaders.[2] And on the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s report card published earlier this year, Parkside received a C — certainly not a stellar grade, but one that placed Parkside in the middle of the pack.[3] The state’s ranking system, however, put Parkside in the bottom 4 percent of all Michigan schools.[4]

The JPS school board appealed Patterson’s forced termination, but state officials enforced the mandate.[5] Instead of firing Patterson outright, however, JPS hired him back on as director of student achievement for secondary students. “We feel he has a very bright future in education,” JPS Superintendent Dan Evans said.[6]

MDE’s annual “Top-to-Bottom” ranking is used to require school officials to change certain practices. Under state law, a low ranking on the TTB list may require a school to terminate its principal, replace half the teaching staff, or even require the entire school to close.[7] Proposed legislation would use the TTB list to identify schools for state takeover.[8]

Unfortunately, the TTB list is a flawed tool for measuring school quality. TTB rankings appear too closely correlated with student poverty rates to adequately distinguish a “good” school from a “bad” school. This shortcoming is no secret:

  • In 2011, Brendan Walsh, a Grosse Pointe Public Schools school board member, plotted schools’ TTB scores against the percentage of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch in each school, and wrote of the TTB ranking, “…[O]ne should not conclude that low scores on standardized tests are a sign of a bad school any more than concluding high scores mean a school is ideal.”[9]

  • David Britten, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, conducted a similar analysis in 2013 and concluded, “Disguised as a ranking system… [the Top-to-Bottom list] really is nothing more than another blinding flash of the obvious. Did we really need another expensive system for identifying which schools and districts have higher rates of poverty than others?”[10]

  • MDE posted a similar scatter plot to the ones Walsh and Britten produced, noting, “Schools with lower proportions of economically disadvantaged students tend to rank higher on the TTB List…”[11]

Though Michigan’s public school accountability system is subject to a host of federal regulations and rules, there is room for the state to develop a clearer and better measure of school quality — one that does not unnecessarily penalize schools for simply enrolling students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.