Giving parents the tools to truly compare schools

“We just bought a new house. It’s a nice house in a good neighborhood. But the big thing in our mind is the local school is really good.”

If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.

For most parents, one of the most important factors in deciding where to live is the quality of the local schools. So it’s not surprising so many Michigan parents are deeply interested in getting solid information about school quality.

Over the past three years, Bridge Magazine has been responding to that need by running our series, “Academic State Champs” around this time of year. It’s based on the notion that the title “Champion” should be applied, not just to leading football teams but to something far more important: school quality.

In today’s Bridge, you’ll find comprehensive school district rankings; 73 districts earned State Champs rankings. The top winners represent the top 5 percent of the 507 school districts across Michigan, including tiny rural districts as well as large metro ones, impoverished and more affluent, charter schools and traditional public schools. Our stories include an easily searchable database so readers can scan and compare the results.

Our research takes account of both school tests and student family income in developing a weighted ranking for Michigan school districts. The idea is that school performance should be measured both by raw academic achievement tests but also by the poverty level of students in a given district. It’s well recognized that family poverty has a big and damaging effect on student achievement in school.

But we’ve gone much farther. In next Tuesday’s Bridge, for the first time ever, we’ll designate Academic State Champs at the individual school building level. Using our searchable database, you will be able to compare how your individual school compares with literally thousands of other schools all across Michigan.

Our methodology and data analysis, independently developed by Public Sector Consultants, a public policy research firm in Lansing, take into account the impact of student family poverty by comparing how districts across Michigan perform compared with other districts serving families with similar income levels.

Our in-depth analysis this year is possible because we’ve crunched student data in more grades than ever, using test results from the state MEAP, the Michigan Merit Exam and the high school ACT. In past years, our champs rankings were based on testing across three grades; this year, we’re analyzing test results across in eight grades.

Mike Wilkinson, Bridge’s ace data reporter, who carried out much of the analysis for these stories, commented: “By going down to the school level, we can ask tough questions about why schools within districts show varying levels of performance, even after student incomes are taken into account.

“At the root of the analysis is the proven yet unfortunate correlation between student income levels and academic success. Poverty places tremendous – but not impossible – hurdles before the poor, ranging from neighborhood violence to hunger to changing schools often, hurdles that can impede learning. Our analysis plots school test scores and poverty levels (measured by eligibility for subsidized lunch, a commonly used poverty measurement) and then uses the results to predict where a school should be performing. It allows for more fair comparisons and acknowledges that a school with high levels of poverty may be a success even if test scores don’t match how wealthy districts are doing.”

David Zeman, Bridge’s editor, adds that “Bridge’s searchable databases allow parents to compare schools as never before, not only with others in their community, but with schools of similar student populations across the state. That’s pretty powerful.”

Powerful, my foot! The information in these stories is a real bombshell. It allows readers and parents to compare schools by geography, by student demography and by school type. You can check out the school down the street, across town or most places all across the state. And to give readers the full story, our reporting partners at worked with Bridge to provide a brief video explaining the methodology behind our rankings.

Bridge Magazine publishes impartial, fact-based, detailed stories that are written and edited to be of everyday use to Michigan citizens. If you think your family members or some of your neighbors would like to receive Bridge online and free of charge, just send me their email addresses at and I’ll arrange to sign them up.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 02/03/2015 - 9:35am
Do we blame a doctor for being ill? Do we blame the police for crime? Then, why are we holding teacher 100% responsible for the educational success of a child? There are factors that are beyond their control. Why are teachers carrying all of the burden? It is time to say enough.
Patricia Lang
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 9:46am
Well said!!
Charles Richards
Sun, 02/08/2015 - 2:56pm
As a matter of fact, we do judge doctors by how successfully they treat cases of a given level of difficulty. That is the same rationale that Bridge is applying to schools. How do schools compare when dealing with students of similar ability and situation? .
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 9:49am
So Phil - how did your rankings deal with public schools that have to take in everyone versus charters who could reject students who they knew would lower scores and cost more to teach? Please tell us. Thanks,
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 5:23pm
Charter Schools are public schools and must follow the same rules, regulations, and laws that "public" schools must follow. Charter schools cannot refuse a child enrollment because of academic standing.
Thu, 02/05/2015 - 9:49am
Patty - they (charter schools) don't 'refuse enrollment' they just market to a specific segment of students and try to make themselves 'unattractive' to difficult students. Just like the Medicare Advantage plans who target healthy seniors (ever notice how their ads feature seniors playing tennis, riding bikes, etc. - ever seen an MA ad with someone in a wheelchair?). Kids with profound learning disabilities, behavioral issues, etc. - I've never seen a charter school set up to handle them. Could you name a couple for me that take them? I'd love to know.
Thu, 02/05/2015 - 5:03pm
I can name two. Threshold Academy and Hope Academy (in Grand Rapids - not to be confused with the one[s] in SE Mich.) were both created specifically to serve at-risk elementary children. I cannot speak to Hope's data because they do not have three years of history and I do not know it accurately. Threshold had 95% poverty, about 20% special education (mostly learning disabled and emotionally impaired and loads of other risk factors including parents who were drop-outs and incarcerated. Threshold offered free busing and was run by a non-profit. It had all of the essentials to be a charter school of service to this state. Threshold received a score of 99.22%. It ranked 41st of the 84 impoverished charter elementary schools ranked. It was on a five year improvement path. This data is not at bragging level but the mission of the school was not test scores -- it was nurturing a specific population to graduate from high school, have a job, be a loving family member and contribute as a citizen. Threshold Academy closed June 2014 due to low test scores.
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 9:58am
Dear Bridge Magazine: I read with interest your article on student achievement and the socio-economic factors affecting student test results. Your attempt to throw good schools "under the bus" has failed. Last September, Newsweek magazine recognized Rockford High School as one of the Top 500 High Schools in America. Number 247 to be exact. The criteria used by Newsweek included schools whose students scored at or above the 80th percentile on standardized assessments within each state. Schools were also assigned a college readiness score, and then rank ordered, based on factors such as weighted SAT/ACT composite scores; weighted AP/IB composite scores; graduation rates; etc. Unfortunately, your study has managed to throw Bridge Magazine, "under the bus". Thanks. Dr. Mike Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools.
david zeman
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 1:39pm
Dr. Shibler, The intent is not to throw anyone under the bus. The intent is to compare district performance against other districts of similar income levels. Those that were named as Academic State Champs today are the districts that most significantly outperformed their peer regions. In other words, as the explanation in the stories points out, we're not measuring achievement, we're measuring over-achievement, given the socioeconomics of a particular district.
Thu, 02/05/2015 - 10:36am
David, could you, have you considered adding into the mix a column showing per student expenditures across the school districts along with your other factors?
Charles Richards
Sun, 02/08/2015 - 3:25pm
Dr. Shibler sets up a straw man that he then proceeds to knock it down. He makes no mention of the socioeconomic status or educational achievements of his student's parents. It would be a trivial matter to rack up his list of achievements if all his students came from well to do, well educated families. But in that case, he couldn't legitimately give the all the credit to his district.
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 10:16am
Is there any special education specific data included in this ranking? Or is that population not figured in? I'd be interested in seeing a compilation of data like this for understanding the current state of special education in Michigan- build upon this Academic State Championship list and factor in placement, due process complaints, special education segregated placements, post-secondary outcomes, families forced into homeschooling, annual performance reports, etc.
Sue Smith
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 12:33pm
I agree with Emilie--Special Education is a mess..even in your winning districts. All I know is that the best and brightest are not in special education. You need a law degree to write an IEP and it is impossible for parents to predict every little learning situation that could take place. I have hired mediators, gone into mediation and frankly, the special education teacher was the problem--she withheld a program from my child that all other schools had in place. Teachers get their hands slapped it they don't follow it and schools are good at writing it in their favor. There are no programs to close gaps other than the normal school year and ineffective summer programs. Also, parent educational level is also a predictor of success, especially in University towns where salaries may be lower.
Sue Smith
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 8:41pm
Ann Arbor has the highest number of National Merit Scholar semi-finalist in the state. Not taking away from the schools, but everyone I know has a tutor for their is #1.
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 7:35pm
Once criteria is designated these become one's biases. To indicate you are impartial is erroneous. You are partial to the criteria you believe is important. Others have selected criteria with different results as noted in someone's statement. Bridge has been so good about reporting both sides and sharing information. I believe you have over stepped your impartiality in selecting winners and losers. There is plenty of this being done by other means. You have added to the quagmire that is rampant in this country and state now. Bob
Sat, 02/07/2015 - 5:56pm
I do agree with Bob, a criterion does bias the findings. If poverty is used as a criterion then it moves the decision away from the child/student and to a culture issue. Is learning a measure of culture or a child’s efforts, is the school a proxy for the local culture or is it about facilitating the child learning? As Mr. Power mentioned poverty has an impact such as with food, but is this rating more about a school providing 3 meals (as happens in my district) or about education? The purpose of the process is purported to be to assist parents in learning about the schools and yet I wonder if there was an outreach to a diverse group of parents to ask them what their concerns were and what they were interested in. Better yet an outreach to parents of graduated students asking about what were the factors they found to be important, even former students that succeeded. I expect they would all individually have anecdotal reasons for their choices and yet as any data base is made up of anecdotal cases there would be a set of criteria that would appear that better represented what would help parents in their choices. As an example; if parents were interested in their children being successful in college a criteria that measured the college success rates of a school’s students maybe more valuable than academic achievement in the high school. It may be more valuable for a student to go to school with kids they will go to college with then to have the highest number of merit scholars. Similarly it maybe more valuable to a parent/student if the students more engaged in learning what it takes to survive, such as what the ‘work ethic’ is, how credit cards and lending cost more than the actual price if bought with cash, how to manage money, how to cook rather than simply eat fast food, etc. I believe Mr. Power and Bridge have ‘good intentions’, but I wonder if they are so bound by conventional thinking that they aren’t trying to understand who they claim to serve. My advice to Bridge and Mr. Power is that when you are trying to develop tools for, in this case schools, assessing/rating performance there are a couple of core factors that must be addressed; what is the purpose of the tool is to address (being very specific), and include the people the tool is designed for during development. I would really be interested in a rating system that was designed for the people whose money is being spent by the Michigan education system.
Charles Richards
Sun, 02/08/2015 - 4:50pm
"In today’s Bridge, you’ll find comprehensive school district rankings; 73 districts earned State Champs rankings. The top winners represent the top 5 percent of the 507 school districts across Michigan,..." This is all very well, but it would have been extremely helpful if Bridge had included a histogram showing how the districts are distributed by quality. Are they distributed normally? If not, how are they distributed? And how can 73 be five percent of 507? By my calculations, they are 14.4% of the total. Mr. Wilkinson says, "“At the root of the analysis is the proven yet unfortunate correlation between student income levels and academic success." Isn't it possible that there is another factor that largely accounts for both student income and academic success? The Economist issue of January 30, 2015, in its article "An hereditary meritocracy," says, "And though the best predictor of an American child's success in school has long been the parents' educational level--a factor which graduates are already ahead on, by definition--money is an increasingly important factor, According to Sean Reardon of Stanford the past decades have seen a growing correlation parental income and children's test scores." So money is important, but it is not the only determining factor. I recognize it is not politically correct to say such things and it makes the problem seem more tractable when it is framed in terms of distribution, but it is not helpful to avoid reality. For one thing, Bridge's attempt to explain academic results would be more accurate and powerful if it took parent's educational level into account. Contrary to many people's assumption, people are not equal in ability and it is certainly the case that cultures vary enormously. It may very well be that, as the Economist advocates, we should spend more money on poor students than better off students, but we should recognize that Michigan has sharply reduced the disparity between wealthy and poor districts as a percentage of per pupil spending. But we should recognize that culture matters a lot. Somali immigrants to England fare much better in school than do native English students of similar income. Jason Riley, in his book "Please Stop Helping Us" recounts the experience of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a well to do suburb of Cleveland. An anthropologist from Stanford found that African American students from solidly upper-middle class families performed well below expectations for their income levels. That is a matter of culture. It is commendable of Bridge and Mr. Power to attempt to improve the lot of poorer students, but that effort should not be one dimensional.
Tue, 02/24/2015 - 7:02am
Does Michigan's DOE generate school grades? In Florida we do. They are based on achievement and achievement gains for all students plus achievement gains for the lowest scoring students. There is some variation in the calculation across school levels. See: tinkers with the formula, and there are concerns that achievement gains mask factors beyond a school's control. Teachers are graded based on gain scores as well. Prominent statisticians argue that teachers impact less than 20% of the differences in gain scores (Haertel et al). Achievement is highly correlated with levels of poverty, of course. Poverty level numbers mask many cultural and educational differences too. We are in a college town with lots of children whose parents are students with low incomes. They do differ from other areas in town. Some schools have federal housing units with high drug rates etc. Those schools' numbers may look like other low income schools but are not the same. School grades vary with changes in test score calculations. Some years all schools drop. Other years schools look good. We need to measure schools to understand what they need rather than to reward or punish teachers and schools.