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Top metro Detroit schools cited for achievement gaps

By Lori Higgins
Detroit Free Press Education Writer

Schools in some of metro Detroit’s elite suburban districts – including Novi, Troy, Plymouth-Canton, Grosse Pointe, Utica and Bloomfield Hills — have what the state says are unacceptably large achievement gaps between their high-performing students and their low-performing students.

The schools have been identified – for the first time – as part of today’s release of school report cards by the Michigan Department of Education. It comes as state officials ramp up efforts to make schools more accountable and transparent, and to provide more assistance to schools that need it.

The 358 schools – called focus schools – represent 10% of the state’s population of public schools. Michigan and other states that have received a waiver from some of the strict rules of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law are required to identify schools with large achievement gaps.

“We are committed to closing the achievement gaps in all of our schools for all of our students,” State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said in a statement this morning. “With this measure of transparency, schools will be identified and held accountable for the achievement of all of their students.”

In addition to the focus schools, the state today released a list of 286 schools named “reward” schools because they are either ranked in top 5% of schools statewide or they have shown the most rapid improvement in their rankings. A separate list of 146 struggling schools, among the bottom 5% of schools statewide, is also being released. These schools, called priority schools this year, were formerly called persistently low achieving schools.

Included on the priority list are 58 schools within Detroit Public Schools. Roy Roberts, the emergency manager for DPS, had strong words this morning about those schools.

“No excuses,” Roberts said in a statement. “Failure and mediocrity will no longer be accepted within Detroit Public Schools.”

He noted that of the 58 schools, 21 of them are either being transferred to a statewide reform district, are being converted to charter schools or being closed.

Beyond that, Roberts said the district will closely review the data to understand the reasons schools are on the list and have those schools prepare an improvement plan.

The report card also include letter grades for schools and identifies whether the schools met the NCLB academic goals. Both are based largely on test scores, but include other factors, such as graduation rate and attendance.

But it’s the focus schools that might garner the most attention. They cut across many boundaries: They’re located throughout the state and include many high- and low-performing schools. The common denominator is that these schools have the largest achievement gaps.

The state defines the achievement gap as the difference between the average scale score – on state exams – between the top-scoring 30% of students and the bottom-scoring 30% of students.

The fact that the list includes many high-performing schools in districts that aren’t used to showing up on a list of schools needing improvement – including 51 schools that are ranked above the 90th percentile on the state’s top-to-bottom ranking of schools list – could pose a public relations problem for some districts.

Of the 358 schools, 145 are located in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties. The bulk – 81 – are in Oakland. There, several districts – including Novi and Troy – have the bulk of their schools identified as focus schools.

“It would be easy to try to avoid or deny this news,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest. “It’s important that schools and parents take the time to understand what the new school labels mean – and embrace the opportunity to make meaningful changes to better support our students.”

She said the gaps highlight that even high-achieving schools need to provide greater support and training for teachers so they can boost achievement for all children.

What’s important now, said Judy Pritchett, chief academic officer for the Macomb Intermediate School District, is for the focus schools to get help in identifying who these kids are and how to help them improve academically.

“Have they been ignoring those kids in the past? I don’t think they have, certainly not purposefully,” Pritchett said.

Joseph Martineau, director of the Bureau of Assessment and Accountability at the MDE, said during a media roundtable earlier this week that being a focus schools is an indication that some students are being served differently in a school.

Or, said Robert Floden of Michigan State University, “You have groups of students who aren’t being well served.”

Floden, codirector of the Education Policy Center at MSU, said there could be tracking going on – steering certain students towards classes based on their abilities.

But Floden said while the state data is important, it shouldn’t be used to hammer schools, because there could be other issues at play.

“I’m hoping that it’s a red flag and it makes people look more closely and isn’t seen as a condemnation of the school,” Floden said.

Among the focus schools is Deerfield Elementary School in Novi, which ranks at the 99th percentile statewide. Two years ago, the state named it a “beating the odds” school because of its success, principal Kim Warren said.

Being named a focus school, she said, “just doesn’t make sense.”

She now has to send a letter home to parents notifying them the school has been identified.

“Our parents value education. They value the perception and where we’re ranked. But parents are also very concerned with how their individual student is achieving. And their individual students are doing well.”

Asked how she would handle addressing the news with parents, Warren was frank: “I’ll just battle this list with the truth.”

Novi Public Schools Superintendent Steve Matthews said when he took on the district’s leadership role a year ago, one of the district goals was that all students would achieve at a high level.

“And the subtext of that goal was that there would be no achievement gaps. We’ve been working to address those gaps in a consistent and systemic way for over a year.”

But he and other administrators in the district expressed major concerns with the focus tag.

“It’s just a shame that our parents may now read an article … and have a shaken belief in their school system, when in fact I believe we’re doing a great job,” said R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent for academics in Novi.

Matthews said some schools in the district have a significant population of students for whom English is a second language. He said the district has been working closely with teachers, ensuring those students are receiving quality instruction and are being measured for growth on a national assessment.

“We think we’re doing everything the state would want the school to do to identify and address the achievement gaps,” Matthews said.

The state will assign what they’re calling district improvement facilitators to assist each of the school districts that have focus schools. Matthews questioned whether the state should be investing those kinds of resources in schools like Deerfield or Novi High, also a focus school, which ranks at the 77th percentile, or in lower-performing schools.

“I would argue it’s the school whose MME (Michigan Merit Exam) scores are 30 points lower than Novi,” Matthews said.

Among the highlights of today’s data release:

  • 82% of the schools in Michigan met the academic standards of the federal No Child Left Behind act, compared to 79% last year.
  • 52% of school districts met the NCLB goals, down dramatically from 93% last year. The state made a couple changes to the way they determine whether school districts meet the standards. Among them: in previous years, a district could be considered meeting the goals if only its elementary schools met the standard. This year, they have to pass at each level — elementary, middle and high school.
  • As part of the state’s accountability system, letter grades were issues to schools. The distribution: 201 schools received an A, 710 received a B, 1,720 received a C, 243 received a D, and 4 schools are unaccredited. Unaccredited schools must come up with a school improvement plan.