“You’ve got to wonder,” Lenhoff said, “Did those schools change that drastically or is there something going on where their ranking is not capturing the quality of the school in all dimensions?”
One of the schools that enjoyed a giant leap was the West Michigan Aviation Academy, the Grand Rapids charter school founded by the DeVos family.
That school went from the 32nd percentile in 2014 to the 87th percentile last year.
Does that mean it got better?
Maybe, or maybe not, said Sunil Joy, the assistant director of policy and research for Education Trust Midwest, a school-advocacy organization affiliated with Education Trust, which is now run by John King, President Barack Obama’s second education secretary.
“Michigan has by far one of the most complex accountability systems in the country, and that makes it really difficult for the public and educators and schools to really understand what’s behind the calculation,” Joy said. “With such an overly complex system, you can’t really pinpoint what happened.”
State officials say they know that their rating system has been mercurial: The biggest change to the formula was the state’s decision not to factor a school’s so-called achievement gap into its final score in 2016.
The achievement gap, which measures the difference between the highest-performing and lowest-performing students in a school, accounted for 25 percent of a school’s ranking in 2014 but wasn’t part of the 2016 ranking because officials feared that gap scores had been artificially inflating the rankings of low-achieving schools where nearly all students posted low test scores.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been so busy with [responding to the new federal education law], we haven’t really had a chance to look into the old data,” said Chris Janzer, who heads the school-accountability office at the state education department.
Janzer said recent changes to the ranking system were intended to be the last major tweaks for a while. But a new federal law that passed in 2015 is expected to force another big change. The state has for months been discussing a shift to a letter-grade rating system but the AP reported Monday that letter grades are off and a school report card could be in.
Critics of the frequent changes make “a valid point,” Janzer said. “When we’re charged with designing a new system, we push for a lengthy life span for it.”
But the state’s education department has limited control at a time when state lawmakers, partisan politics, and federal law have all had a hand in altering the way Michigan students and schools have been judged in recent years.
The department told schools and the federal government that there would be no high-stakes consequences for test scores in 2015 and 2016 because schools needed time to adapt to new exams and a new rating system.
But a different state office—the School Reform Office—which Michigan Governor Rick Snyder moved out of the Michigan Department of Education in 2015 so it would report to him, announced last summer that it wasn’t held to the department’s commitments. The reform office said it was obliged to follow a new law requiring the state to shut down every Detroit school that had been in the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row. The office said it would apply the mandate to the entire state.