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Meet the 2015 high school Academic State Champs

Houghton County has a generous expanse of Lake Superior coastline, so perhaps it’s natural to ask whether there’s something in the water.

More likely, it’s something in the schools.

Three of the county’s eight high schools earned top marks from Bridge Magazine in its fifth annual Academic State Champs competition, performing well above expectations in student performance.

They are among 44 high schools statewide named 2015 Academic State Champs. Winning schools were chosen from among nearly 770 traditional public and charter high schools across Michigan. Rankings were based on the percent of students at each school deemed career or college ready, when adjusted for student poverty levels.

This year, Bridge is not issuing 2015 State Champs certificates for elementary and middle schools. That’s because Michigan switched last year from its longstanding use of the MEAP test to a new standardized test, known as M-STEP. Because 2015 was M-Step’s first year, Bridge does not consider its results sufficiently reliable to issue school-level ratings. Bridge demands at least three years of test data for State Champs recognition. (Bridge, however, will post an income-adjusted database of M-STEP results on Thursday; more on that below)

This year’s 2015 State Champs results for high schools is also different from previous years, based on a narrower set of criteria. Previously, high school’s were ranked based on school performance on the MEAP, the Michigan Merit Exam and the ACT, when adjusted for income.

This year, with the absence of the MEAP and the MME, we are recognizing State Champs using proficiency scores from the ACT, ranking schools by the percent of students considered career or college ready (i.e., proficient) in the four ACT subject areas: math, English, reading and science, again adjusted for income.

Frigid focus on education

The high schools recognized this year come from across the state, in urban, rural and suburban settings, from Michigan’s largest counties to some of the smallest.

In Houghton County, which stretches to the northern crest of the Upper Peninsula, Houghton Central was tops among small county schools with the lowest category of poverty. Neighboring Dollar Bay High was first among schools in small counties with moderate poverty levels. And nearby Calumet High finished fourth in the same group. (The other five high schools in the county also performed above state averages when adjusted for poverty levels.)

The schools serve students in a county of about 36,000 people, ranging from academics working for Michigan Technological University to loggers, healthcare workers and small businesses. Why are its schools exceeding expectations?

“The U.P. in general has a blue-collar mentality, but parents prioritize education,” said Christina Norland, principal at Dollar Bay. “They have a strong work ethic and expect their kids to do well. We have strong students and strong families.”

The methodology and data analysis for ASC was independently developed for Bridge by Public Sector Consultants, a public policy research firm in Lansing. It compared how high schools across the state perform against schools in counties of a similar size and with similar student income levels. The income adjustment, based on the percent of students who meet federal requirements for free or reduced-price lunch, recognizes the demonstrated impact that poverty typically exerts on student achievement.

PSC calculated “predicted” scores for each school on the ACT, given the percentage of poorer students. Then it looked at the school’s actual scores to see if they were above or below expectations for a school of that poverty level.

A score of 100 indicates a school is meeting expectations; those above 100 exceed expectations and those scoring below 100 are not meeting them.

High schools were placed in one of three county settings: large (i.e., Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Kent), medium or small, based on population. See list at right. They were further broken down into three income groups – those with more than 55 percent of their students eligible of free or reduced price lunch, those with 35-55 percent, and those with fewer than 35 percent.

These income and county categories allow for more apple-to-apple comparisons. So, for instance, more affluent, big-county suburban schools like East Grand Rapids in Kent County are compared with Oakland County’s Birmingham or Bloomfield Hills schools. Schools with scores within the top 5 percent in each county-income group are the 2015 State Champs.

Some schools recognized this year have been winners before – Ashley High School in Gratiot County, Star International Academy in Dearborn, Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy. There were some new entrants: Watervliet and New Buffalo high schools in southwest Michigan,Crestwood High School in Wayne County, and West Ottawa High School, northwest of Holland. Some, like Cesar Chavez High School in Detroit, a charter school, returned to the list.

On Thursday, Bridge will publish a second database showing how Michigan elementary and middle schools performed on the M-STEP. What’s unique about this database is that, in addition to showing a school’s performance, Bridge will show how that school’s performance in the first year compares with schools at similar income levels. Again, because it is the first year of scores, there will be no State Champ recognition for these schools.

Today’s rankings, as ever, are not perfect. Other factors beyond poverty can impact achievement, such as language barriers and the percentage of students who received pre-K education as children. And, as stated above, the depth of this year’s high school rankings is narrowed by a lack of standardized test data. Nevertheless, Academic State Champs gives families and policymakers a useful tool to compare performance in schools across income levels and geographic areas.

Enter Bridge’s high school database (above) and see how your school performed.

And come back to Bridge on Thursday for M-STEP performance comparisons at the elementary and middle-school levels.

Congratulations to this year's Academic State Champs.

Click here to receive your FREE 2015 Academic State Champ bumper sticker!

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