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Detroit's selective Cass Technical High School saw its state ranking sink by 57 percentage points in 2016 — one of dozens of Michigan schools that saw dramatic swings in their rankings after Michigan changed the tests kids take and the formula behind the rankings.

Some of Detroit’s most celebrated selective schools saw their standings plunge on the state’s most recent school rankings.

Renaissance High School was one of the highest ranked schools on Michigan’s 2014 Top to Bottom schools list, scoring in the 98th percentile, better than 98 percent of state schools. But when the state in January released its latest ranking, based on 2016 test scores, the school had dropped to the 48th percentile, putting it slightly below the state average.

Cass Technical High School dropped 57 percentage points, from the 78th percentile in 2014 to the 21st percentile in 2016. (There was no 2015 list).

And the Bates Academy, a selective elementary school in northwest Detroit, dropped from the 86th percentile in 2014 to the 34th percentile last year.

The nose-diving rankings could be alarming to parents and educators, but testing experts say the dramatic swings say more about a rating system that’s been in turmoil in recent years than it does about individual schools.

The state’s decision to change both the way it tests students and the way it translates student scores into a ranking means that dozens of schools saw their standings sink or soar by 50 or more percentage points between 2014 and 2016 — far more movement than experts say can be explained by typical changes in schools from one year to the next.

Yet the rankings have created image problems for schools like Cass and Renaissance that saw their standings tank. They’ve made schools — like the Grand Rapids charter school founded by billionaire Dick DeVos and his wife, Betsy, the U.S. Education Secretary — look like they’ve made extraordinary improvements in just two short years. And they’ve raised questions about how officials can use the rankings to make crucial decisions such as which schools should be targeted for closure or intervention.

“It’s a very crude measure that’s being used to make a very important decision,” said Edward Roeber, who served as the state’s top testing official from 2003 to 2007.

The state’s plan to close as many as 38 schools based on the rankings is largely on hold for now as the affected districts negotiate improvement plans with the state, but the low-rated schools remain in danger of being closed next year.

And they’re not the only ones feeling the pain of the changing measures. Even higher-performing schools are trying to figure out where they stand this year and how they’ll fare next year when the state is expected to respond to a new federal law by scrapping the Top to Bottom list and replacing it with a new system.

“It’s difficult because the target keeps moving and there’s this really public document called the Top to Bottom list that’s out there for the world to see,” said Danielle Jackson, the chief academic officer for the University Prep charter school network.

When University Prep Math and Science High School saw its ranking drop 50 percentage points from the 69th percentile in 2014 to the 19th percentile last year, the network reached out to parents to make sure they understood that the ranking formula had changed and that after years of preparing students for the ACT, kids were suddenly faced with a different test — the SAT — instead.

But those explanations only go so far in cities like Detroit where parents have many options and children can enroll in district, charter, private or suburban schools.

Here, a school that falls in the rankings can have a harder time recruiting students, potentially damaging its ability to survive.

“We’re in a highly competitive environment,” Jackson said.

With stakes that high, it’s important that schools have clear goals to work toward — and right now they don’t, said Sarah Lenhoff, a Wayne State University education professor who specializes in school improvement and choice.

“They’re sending really different and mixed signals, both to schools about what they need to work on to improve and to parents and families about what this ranking means,” Lenhoff said.

Lenhoff ran an analysis of the 2014 and 2016 rankings that identified 74 Michigan schools that saw their rankings go up or down by 50 or more points between 2014 and 2016. That includes 31 schools that fell precipitously in the rankings and 43 that leapt from the bottom to the top.

More than 500 schools saw a change of at least 25 percentage points — roughly a fifth of the more than 2,500 schools that were ranked in both 2014 and 2016.

“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.

“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.

Not only have the exams behind the the ratings changed from the MEAP to the M-STEP in elementary and middle school and from the ACT to the SAT in high school, but the state also made major changes to the formula it uses to calculate rankings.

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.

The state also changed the way it measures whether students improved from one year to the next.

So if a school dropped in the rankings, it could be because students have not adapted well to the new exams. Or the school could have lost points to the new formula.

“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 Associated Press 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 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 Education 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 Gov. Snyder moved out of the Education Department 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.

The education department did not release its Top to Bottom list in 2015, but the School Reform Office put out a limited list last year identifying schools that were in the bottom five percent in 2015.

When the full 2016 Top to Bottom list came out in January, the reform office announced that 38 schools that appeared at the bottom of the 2014, 2015 and 2016 lists were in danger of closing.

The closings have been postponed for at least 18 months but it’s not clear what will happen to those schools next year — or to the 35 schools that were put on notice that they could be closed in 2018 if students don’t do well on this year’s exams.

It can be a tough environment in which to teach kids, Jackson said, but she says she tries to tune out the noise.

“This is the reality,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury to kind of roll up in a ball on the floor and cry. I don’t have the luxury to get on the soap box and talk about ‘This isn’t fair.’ My job is to state the facts to my team and to be able to respond in the most responsible way without making the school a place where kids only come to be drilled on tests.”

Still, Jackson called on the state to settle on one rating and “hold this target steady.”

“I surely hope that we can be really, really clear,” she said. “The most underserved students in our community deserve an opportunity to be successful and stability is a very, very big part of making that happen.”

For the full list of Michigan school rankings in 2014 and 2016, click here.

Chalkbeat Detroit

Ed. Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. This content is republished on Daily Detroit with permission. If you want to learn more about Chalkbeat, check out our podcast interview with them by clicking here.