Michigan high school rankings in U.S. News don’t tell full story

Researchers say the top 10 public high schools in Michigan ranked by U.S. News & World Report this week may be great schools that produce high-achieving students, but the rankings don’t give parents the full story.

An analysis from the Detroit Free Press also found that this year’s rankings are also overwhelmingly located in wealthy areas.

Of the top 10, eight are in communities with a higher median income than the state’s median income, $63,498, according to census data. Four are in communities with median incomes of $100,000 or more.

A quarter or less of the students attending nine of 10 of the schools are considered economically disadvantaged. Half of the schools on the list serve less than 15% of economically disadvantaged students. Statewide, about 54% of students are economically disadvantaged.

And at six of the schools, students with disabilities make up 5% or less of total enrollment, compared with 14% of students with disabilities who attend public schools statewide.

“What they’re really doing is measuring opportunity,” Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said of the rankings, which typically arrive every year to an avalanche of attention and headlines.

This year’s rankings placed the International Academy of Macomb in Clinton Township at the top of the list, followed by the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills and City High Middle School in Grand Rapids, the school on the list with the highest proportion of economically disadvantaged students, at 39%, according to state data.

U.S. News & World Report, a media organization known for school rankings, reviewed nearly 25,000 public high schools nationally, and 651 in Michigan made the list.

But the rankings are also no stranger to criticism — namely that the schools at the top tend to be in wealthier communities with districts that are better resourced with stronger tax bases, bestowing them the honor of being a “best” school as decided by U.S. News, with a badge to display on their website. This year in rankings for metro Detroit alone, none of the top 20 schools are in the city itself; all are in surrounding suburbs. Renaissance High School in Detroit was ranked No. 25 on the list.

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Some of the schools are also more rigorous by design, not intended to serve every student. International Academy of Macomb is a magnet school, with an admissions process that requires a “strong academic record and work ethic.”

In what appeared to be an attempt to address the criticism that the rankings favor schools serving wealthier communities, U.S. News, in partnership with nonprofit research institute RTI International, changed how it ranked high schools in 2019. The change shifted the emphasis from performance on Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams to other measures, including graduation rates and performance on state assessments, the Washington Post reported. However, the top schools in Michigan are still largely in wealthy areas.

Eric Brooks, principal data analyst for education at U.S. News & World Report, in an emailed response to questions, wrote that the organization’s methodology does attempt to measure how schools serve marginalized students.

“We have an additional ranking factor that assesses state assessment scores specific to these historically underserved subgroups compared to what is typical in their states,” he wrote. “That withstanding, the highest ranked schools are also those whose 12th graders earned qualifying scores in an array of college-level exams, and schools in wealthier areas do tend to offer the most college-level classwork and preparation.” 

How U.S. News calculates high school rankings

According to U.S. News’ website, the rankings take the following indicators into account:

  • College readiness (30%): This indicator takes into account “the number of 12th grade students in the 2020-2021 academic year who took at least one AP or IB test by the end of their senior year” divided by the total number of 12th grade students at the school and “the number of 12th grade students in the 2020-2021 academic year who took and earned a qualifying score” on an AP or IB tests divided by the total number of 12th grade students at the school. A 3 or higher counts as a qualifying score on the AP test and a 4 or higher counts on IB. Some criticism around rankings like this stem from the fact that not all schools have the resources to offer AP or IB programs, though U.S. News writes that “adjustments were made” so that schools with zero AP or IB classes “would not score significantly worse than schools with very few APs and IBs.”
  • College curriculum (10%): This index is also calculated using AP and IB scores, looking at how many of those advanced courses students took and the proportion of qualifying scores they received. Brooks wrote that “an abundance of schools offering limited or no AP or IB exams still placed in the top third of the national rankings.”
  • State assessment proficiency (20%): This indicator scores students on proficiency in state assessments in math, reading and science. U.S. News used either data from 2018-19 tests or 2020-21 tests, depending on the proportion of students who participated due to the pandemic. Using assessments to grade school quality is also often criticized because scores often resemble a measure of poverty.
  • State assessment performance (20%): In this indicator, U.S. News measures total assessment scores “compared with what U.S. News predicted for a school with its demographic characteristics in its state.” In this case, the organization writes, “schools performing best on this ranking indicator are those whose assessment scores far exceeded U.S. News’ modeled expectations.”
  • Underserved student performance (10%): This measure looks at how Black, Hispanic and low-income students score on state assessments compared “with the average for non-underserved students among schools in the same state,” according to U.S. News.
  • Graduation rate (10%): U.S. News measured the proportion of students who entered high school in the 2017-18 school year and graduated four years later, in 2021.
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According to Cowen, many rankings like the one done by U.S. News fail to take into account the kind of resources available in wealthier communities to help raise student achievement on state assessments and encourage students into advanced courses.

“These are high, high income areas, but also highly saturated with what I call human capital. Very high parental education level, lower crime rates, huge investments in infrastructure,” he said.

For example, Skyline High School, No. 6 on the list, is in Ann Arbor, where the district has implemented a very detailed system for monitoring lead levels in water, capabilities that more impoverished districts may not have due to a lack of available resources.

Furthermore, rankings such as that done by U.S. News don’t really show whether schools spark progress in learning among students, said Nat Malkus, a researcher and deputy director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.

“A lot of these schools are going to be good because they have the most important resource for high quality outcome,” he said. “That’s the students who come in the door on day one. … U.S. News doesn’t have the data or the ability to actually measure how productive schools are.”

What do rankings say about inequities in public schools?

State education advocates have long said Michigan’s system of funding public education favors wealthy areas, where wealthier tax bases can cover more expenses, through more active booster fundraising or at the state level where they say underserved students with higher needs should be funded at higher levels.

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The current budget passed this summer is the state’s attempt to try to address some of those inequities, which allocated more funding for vulnerable students including English language learners and students considered at-risk — which include, among others, low-income students, students experiencing homelessness and victims of child abuse.

Malkus said parents concerned about where to send their child to high school should dig deeper than national rankings.

“There are no replacements for engaged parents, going to the site, talking to the schools, and making sure that the schools are going to be the kinds of places that they want their kid to spend seven hours a day,” he said.

To Cowen, there is nothing wrong with making information about schools publicly available, but the U.S. News framework isn’t aimed at improving public policy.

“They’re not talking about equity, or opportunity,” Cowen said. “They’re talking about just a leafy neighborhood you should aspire to be.”

Contact Lily Altavena: [email protected].

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