There are many reasons policymakers, taxpayers and parents would find a rank-ordered list of Michigan schools useful. A school ranking like the TTB list seems to provide the security of knowing exactly how one school, regardless of its location and particular circumstances, stacks up against all other schools in the state.
However, a statewide rank-ordered list such as this requires using a host of assumptions, values and variables, each chosen and assigned importance by the creator of a report card’s methodology. These factors may or may not have any relation to what parents and students actually value in a particular school. Methodologies can also be sensitive to change, with slight modifications producing vastly different outcomes for individual schools. Since MDE uses school rankings to determine whether a school is to be praised, needs additional help, or is ultimately closed, the importance of measuring school quality accurately is critical.
Detroit Public Schools’ Thirkell Elementary provides a clear example of the problematic nature of relying too heavily on a single methodology to determine the quality of a public school in Michigan. This school was ranked in the bottom 1 percent of Michigan schools on the TTB list. Excellent Schools Detroit, however, a nonprofit coalition of community leaders that conducts unannounced visits of Detroit-area schools, ranked Thirkell as the best school in all of Detroit. A report card produced by this author that controls for school poverty rates found Thirkell to be top-performing school in the entire state. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently visited Thirkell to honor the school’s success and progress.
Since Michigan’s school ranking system list is so closely correlated with student socioeconomic background — more so than any other state surveyed — it is likely that some low-ranked schools would appear to be doing quite well when compared to schools serving students from similar backgrounds. If the state’s TTB list were simply used to provide transparency, there would be not be as much cause for concern. But since the list has been used to replace principals, reorganize schools and may eventually be used to justify state takeover, the need to replace the TTB list with a more accurate measure of school quality is urgent.