‘Why is THAT school an Academic State Champ?’

Here’s a quickie guide to every question you may have about Academic State Champs. Well, at least four of the questions, anyway. Got more? Ask them in the comment section below. We’ll get them answered.

How can high-achieving school districts like Grosse Pointe or Novi rank below schools with lower test scores?

Academic State Champs isn’t a measure of achievement – it’s a measure of overachievement.
Here’s what we mean by that.

To a frustrating level, school test scores track the socioeconomic status of the children who walk through the doors. It’s not a coincidence that some of Michigan’s school districts with the highest raw test scores (such as Bloomfield Hills, Okemos and Forest Hills) are nestled in wealthy communities, and that struggling districts (such as Detroit, Saginaw and Flint) are in low-income communities.

Bridge Magazine’s Academic State Champs, now in its fourth year, attempts to level the playing field by considering the income of students enrolled in schools. In effect, we’re gauging how well school districts and charters perform compared with other schools with the same level of income.

So you’re telling me that some schools with high test scores aren’t as good as some schools with low test scores?

Not at all. We are simply looking at school performance from a different perspective.
Students from Grosse Pointe, East Grand Rapids and dozens of other high-income school districts achieve high test scores and routinely get admitted to elite universities. But here’s the thing: Not all of them outperform their peers to the same degree that some lower-income districts outperform their counterparts.

In the Academic State Champs formula, schools are compared to similar schools. Novi, for example, where only 8 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch (the state average is 48 percent), has student test scores that are good but not great compared with other high-income districts. Okemos Public Schools, with 18 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, has a greater share of 11th graders considered “college ready” by their ACT scores. Okemos has an overall State Champ ranking of No. 12 out of 507 districts and charter schools; Novi is No. 140.

Meanwhile, students at Roscommon Area Public Schools, a low-income district between Clare and Grayling, have lower test scores than Novi. But Roscommon performs extremely well compared with other districts and charters where 65 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Roscommon’s State Champ rank is No. 20.

It looks like the top rankings are dominated by low-income districts and charters. Why is that?

Actually, both low- and high-income schools are under-represented among the overall State Champs, the 25 districts and charters that comprise the top 5 percent the state. About 34 percent of the state’s districts and charters are low income, while 24 percent of the overall State Champs are low income. Eleven percent of the state’s schools are high-income, and 4 percent of those are among the State Champs.

If you look at district rankings, you’ll find as many low-income districts at the bottom of the list as at the top. The same goes for wealthy districts.

Charter schools are a peculiar case in some ways, because a charter school is considered both a school and a district in Michigan. As a result, we rank them alongside more traditional districts in the state, even though they are generally much smaller.

Let’s cut to the chase: Does this mean that my child in Novi is getting a worse education than a child in Roscommon?

Not at all. Academic State Champs is just one approach in the difficult task of judging school performance. But we do think it’s valuable for schools (and the families attending those schools) to know how they are performing compared to their peers, which we’re defining as schools with similar rates of poverty.

And there’s a real chance that Novi, and every other school district and charter in the state, can learn lessons from schools like Roscommon where students are overachieving.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 02/03/2015 - 9:51am
Ron, It would be helpful for all of the readers if you published the formula for calculating the rankings. I would be very interested in the methodology. Thank you.
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 11:03am
Thank you very much
Jeff King
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 10:21pm
Mr, French: I viewed the video determined this is flawed study for Schools who do not have a lunch program since free/reduced cost lunches determine the offset. Parents need to file an application for their child to get the free/reduced cost lunch and since there is no incentive to do so in schools without a lunch program, this is skewing the data. Can bridge magazine either remove the schools without a lunch program or adjust the methodology?
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 2:12pm
It is extremely rare these days that any media entity takes socio-economic factors into account when "ranking" schools. Thank you for that. But, after reviewing the methodology and Mr. French's explanation above, it is unclear to me why Bridge does not create multiple rankings. That is, if the idea is to compare like to like -- in that it is completely absurd to compare Bloomfield Schools to East Detroit schools, for example -- why not create such a list or list that just that. The rhetorical effect here -- despite the disclaimers by Mr. French -- is to downgrade certain school or school Districts with good reputations. And the list retains the old problem of comparing single charter entities to whole Districts. Why? Indeed, while I greatly appreciate the multiple links and the extended commentary here and elsewhere all that seems to indicate the "list" in and of itself is deeply flawed as it can't be truly understood or followed without extended discussion.
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 3:50pm
In Novi, we rarely present our achievement data in comparison to the data of others. When and if we ever do this, we do not do so to denigrate the status of another school district. Actually, to the contrary, we usually examine state and regional data with care and concern for our fellow communities. I find it curious, knowing that I serve as the school district's chief accountability officer, that I was not consulted about the concerns Mr. French includes in this Q&A. To our community members, please know, these questions did not come from me, Superintendent Matthews, nor Mr. Webber, our Assistant Superintendent of Academics. If the concerns came from one or some our community members, we ask these community members to please contact the three of us so that we can help address those concerns. As we are not concerned, I hope our parents know that metrics like this are just one of many that we may consider -- or we may not consider-- as important. More importantly, we have never needed outside help in pointing out our need to address achievement gaps. Are we thankful such additional metrics are constructed which are supposedly intended to help us keep focused on our vision and mission? To quote Mr. French, "Not at all." These metrics seem to bolster the idea that somehow something is wrong in places like Novi -- or that we are not already a "learning organization." I always invite educators from across the state to share their learning when the opportunity presents itself. We may share our story and ask others to share their story. We do not tell others how to do their work. I do not distract other districts from their work with my own algorithms or spreadsheets; claims; arguments about what makes for success. I rarely see articles posted in the media that end, "It's not that there is anything wrong in (District A), they just might have something to learn from Novi." I would assume that other districts are doing everything that they can do to learn more about the needs of their own students -- and do whatever it takes to help them learn, grow, and achieve. Novi and Roscommon are unique communities. Lifting up Roscommon as an example of "what we should do" does not help students in Roscommon. Our historic, exceptional level of achievement in Novi is not the enemy of success for all other school districts in the state of Michigan. Learning is not a competition. Regards, Nick Kalakailo Director of Student Growth & Accountability Novi Community School District
David Zeman
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 11:46am
Hi Nick, Thanks for taking the time to comment on Academic State Champs. Let me address your two main points. First, I did not see Ron's reference to Novi in his story as denigrating the district's performance. His story acknowledges that Novi students perform well academically, comparing their achievement for example to student performance in Grosse Pointe. The point we are making is that Academic State Champs is not a measurement of raw academic achievement. It instead measures how districts (and next week, individual schools) compare with peers across the state of similar socioeconomic levels. By this measure, the districts that we recognize as State Champs this year more significantly outperformed their demographic peers than did Novi with its peers. Regarding your second point, about your distaste for comparing your district performance with other districts, we at Bridge strongly disagree with this line of thinking. And my guess is, many parents in Novi (and other districts) would disagree as well. Novi doesn't operate in a vacuum. Like students across the state, Novi students are in fact competing with students across Michigan, across the nation and around the world for jobs of the future. To that end, I would venture that it is extremely important for them to know how they stack up against their peer districts. That is particularly important in a place like Michigan, where students of all races, incomes and in all geographic regions are falling further behind their demographic peers across the nation, and have been for years. Our rankings are not perfect, as we point out repeatedly in this project. But they do offer a valuable perspective as Michigan debates how to improve K-12 performance in the years ahead. And we believe parents in your district deserve to know how their schools compare with similar communities, near and far. Hope this explanation helps. David Zeman Editor, Bridge
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 02/08/2015 - 12:36pm
The importance of comparing district scores began with No Child Left Behind. Since then even with choice and charters, schools are not getting better and districts in poor urban areas have gotten worse. Over 10 years of "reform" has become the status quo. It is time to try something different. You do not improve the life of a starving person by weighing her.
David L. Richards
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 9:44am
I am glad to see an attempt to rank which includes demographics. I would add that to measure a school system, the comparison should be change in academic accomplishment between the starting point (kindergarten) and the end point (graduation from high school). Any ranking or evaluation of an educational system also requires a determination of values. For instance, what if one school district (or individual school, or teacher) teaches students who do well, but hate the process and try to avoid the subject matter for the rest of their lives, and another school district teaches students who do not do as well, but are left curious and enthusiastic about learning more as their lives continue? Which would we rate higher?
John S.
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 1:48pm
If you are able, post the raw data. Presumably, the analyst regressed test scores against the percentage of students eligible for school lunches, saved the residuals, and then ranked districts in terms of the magnitude of the residuals. A careful study of positive outliers might reveal more about what contributes to academic success beyond that which would be expected based upon SES.
Thu, 02/05/2015 - 9:45am
Hi, I think this is great and parents should want effective schools. Will address how you included family education into the poverty ratings? A city like Ann Arbor, has a very educated "poor" compared to other districts. Secondly, would you addresss the cost differences in Universities. For example, most Michigan students finish in 4 years and MSU finish in 5. Even though Michigan is more expensive per year, the true cost of education is more expensive at MSU. Colleges do not have any incentive in making sure students finish.
Fri, 02/06/2015 - 3:50pm
The problem I see is that school districts are going to use this "honor" to try to avoid the discussion of the overall failure of the school district. This is the mass text I received from our high school principal. Mr. Bacon: Great news! Pellston High School received Academic State Champ honors and is ranked 23rd among high schools in the state! A letter home will soon follow. Congratulations to our students, families and staff! Because I could not believe that our failing district would receive such an "honor", I followed the link and discovered the criteria.
Sun, 10/02/2016 - 2:37pm
Exactly sir.
Sat, 02/07/2015 - 8:12pm
Mr French states here that "Academic State Champs is just one approach in the difficult task of judging school performance". Unfortunately, the sponsored Bridge post in my FB feed makes a much broader claim, trumpeting Academic State Champs as "Michigan's Best Districts" I fear that whatever value your Bridge analysis hopes to offer for a broader, thoughtful approach to school improvement is negated by your own click bait approach.
Thu, 02/12/2015 - 8:28am
And here is the problem with rankings -- it all gets boiled down to a bumper sticker -- http://bridgemi.com/2015/01/academic-state-champs-bumper-sticker/It is one thing to look at rankings to see if if provides insight and comparisons. It is entirely different to call those that rank the highest "Champs" and offer bumperstickers celebrating that fact.
Mon, 02/09/2015 - 6:57am
I am disappointed that Bridge would fall into the simplistic trap of judging schools by using a test score-to-SES measure. The variables that impact schools are much more complicated than that. And, comparing charter "districts" to entire public school districts is hardly a valid comparison. If you are going to broadcast "winners and losers" in such a large public forum, at least make an effort to do it more reasonably accurate.