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Michigan's education overhaul: What does 'college-ready' really mean?


On Wednesday, we heard Gov. Rick Snyder's chief education advisor say this:

"We have over 230 schools where zero children were college-ready when they got their high school diplomas," Richard McLellan.

McLellan was talking to Michigan Radio’s Jennifer Guerra who reported on proposed changes to Michigan’s education system.

He's the author of a 300-page draft public education overhaul bill being called the “Michigan Education Finance Act.”

It would drastically change the way schools in the state are funded.

More than 230 schools where zero children are college-ready.

That’s a shocking statistic, and one that Gov. Snyder loves to use again and again when talking about the need to make sweeping changes to the state's education system.

If you visit his website, you'll see it in the first or second paragraph of the press releases his office has released on the subject.

And it was a talking point in his special message on education last year.

Here is what he said:

Districts and schools must be held accountable for student outcomes. In Michigan, 238 high schools did not produce a single student proficient in math or reading last year, yet every one of those schools is accredited.


238 Michigan high schools have zero college-ready students in all subjects based on the spring 2010 ACT test.

Where does this statistic come from?

The test the governor is referring to is the ACT test administered to 11th graders as part of the state’s Michigan Merit Exam.

In order to be deemed “college-ready,” according to the standard used by the governor, students would have to score at or above certain benchmarks in all four subject areas tested on the exam: English, reading, math, and science.

For those counting, that’s an 18 in English, 21 in reading, 22 in math, and 24 in science (the maximum score being a 36).

The Governor's statistic is blunt, and it’s powerful, but critics say it’s misleading.

To begin, some question the test’s ability to judge student potential.

Todd Schulz from The Center for Michigan spoke with Judy Pritchett, chief academic officer of the Macomb Intermediate School District, about the issue.

“Human beings are extremely complex organisms,” said Pritchett, whose intermediate district encompasses 21 school districts. “To say we’re failing or not based on one index is not fair and not what we should be doing as we make major decisions on reforms. “These numbers are not a good basis for making education reform. We’re the first to say that we’re not into the status quo and we need to make some changes. But this one is so flawed because it’s a limited study and to use just one assessment when making decisions with these ramifications is just not a good approach,” she added.

Pritchett also notes that missing out on just one of the four benchmarks disqualifies a student from the “college-ready” label. She says there are thousands of students who might have a weakness in a single subject, yet still excel in college.

What schools are we talking about?

Based on the state's statistics, there are 1,153 high schools in Michigan:

  • 733 public high schools
  • 228 public schools that run from junior-high to high schools
  • 192 public schools that run from elementary to high schools

So Gov. Snyder and Richard McLellan are talking about around 20 percent of the state's high schools. (Six of the high schools on their list are private schools, so we're comparing 232 schools.)
Critics say these schools don't accurately represent most of Michigan's high schools.

Dr. Vickie Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools, points out that 75% of the 238 schools had 43 or fewer students with college reportable scores.

She explains:

That is because most of the schools on the list are for adjudicated youth, public school academies (charter schools), alternative high schools, or special education high schools. Schools specially designed for high school students who are experiencing major challenges with learning and life. In addition, 85% of the schools on the governor’s list have more than 50% of their students living in poverty and qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

So, while the numbers can be upsetting (for example, Detroit's Mumford and Southeastern high schools had zero "college-ready" students out of 626 test takers collectively), we thought it would be wise to give them a little context.

You can take a look at a spreadsheet of the 2010  "college readiness" numbers, or visit the Michigan Department of Education website for more recent ACT data.

- Jordan Wyant & Mark Brush, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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