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Even Top Detroit High Schools Fail State's Standards

Dozens of high schools in metro Detroit failed to meet the state's progress goals this year, and the Detroit Public Schools posted its worst showing ever: Not a single one of its high schools measured up to the strict requirements in the high school report cards released Thursday.

Even some high-performing schools missed the mark for various reasons. Grosse Pointe South High didn't meet the goals because too few of its students were tested. And Detroit's two premier high schools -- Cass Tech and Renaissance -- didn't achieve the requirements because of low graduation rates.

There are 50 ways a school can fail to meet the standards, and that opens up many doors to failure.

"It's frustrating," said John McEwan, superintendent of Romeo Community Schools, where the high school didn't meet goals because of low scores for special education students on state MEAP tests. Overall, the school had the highest MEAP scores in Macomb County.

The Detroit school district, where the graduation rate dropped from 67 percent in 2001-02 to 44 percent in 2002-03, will need to figure out how to raise academic performance while keeping kids in school.

The state requires schools to have at least an 80-percent graduation rate.

"You can't assign all the blame to the schools. It's that these kids don't see education paying off. They don't see it worthwhile to stick around, obviously," said David Plank, codirector of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

Every school received a letter grade and learned whether it had met the goals required by federal and state accountability systems.

States are required to issue school report cards by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has forced more accountability on public schools. The law requires states to identify schools that don't meet adequate yearly progress standards, which in Michigan are based on MEAP test scores, the percentage of students who take the test and graduation rates.

Michigan's own accountability system, Education YES!, assigns letter grades to schools based on MEAP scores and how schools rate themselves on factors such as teacher quality and parent involvement.

This is the second school year Michigan has issued the report cards.

The release came two days after Detroiters voted to return to a traditional, elected school board and about a week after district officials said they will announce in January a list of schools that will be closing to save money.

The impact of not meeting the accountability goals will vary. If a school receives federal funds for low-income students, it faces sanctions that grow in severity the longer it falls short. The penalties range from offering parents the choice to send their kids to another school to replacing the school's staff.

But for most of the suburban schools, which receive little federal funding, being on the list is more of a public relations issue.

Some of the news was good. This year, 625 schools statewide received passing grades of C or better, compared to 507 last year.

But the number of schools that failed to meet adequate yearly progress standards increased from 297 last year to 436 this year.

State officials said that was due mostly to the fact that nearly 100 additional schools were evaluated this year, including many alternative high schools and special education centers.

Overall, "our teachers, parents and communities are working together to lift up our schools, but we need to go further," State Schools Superintendent Tom Watkins said.

Still, the news prompted Gov. Jennifer Granholm to ask Lt. Gov. John Cherry and his commission on higher education and economic growth to find "bold solutions" to improve the achievement of high school students.

"We will never achieve our goal of doubling the number of college graduates we produce in Michigan without addressing the performance of our high schools," Granholm said in a statement Thursday.

Top Detroit Public Schools officials did not respond to requests for comment on the district's showing.

While low MEAP scores hurt most Detroit high schools, the top-performing schools were affected by low graduation rates.

The news out of Detroit shouldn't be a surprise, Plank said.

"Few or no Detroit high schools are very successful at graduating their kids. Even the best ones are faced with serious problems of dropouts," he said.

Between 2001 and 2003, when the graduation rate declined, Detroit's dropout rate doubled. Cass and Renaissance have selective programs, and students must transfer if their marks dip below a 2.5 grade point average.

About 800 freshmen enter Cass every year, but by senior year, the class has dwindled to around 500.

It was unclear Thursday how the school district tracks students who leave the selective schools.

Watkins said the Detroit Public Schools will first need to determine the accuracy of the data. Urban school districts notoriously have a difficult time tracking students, he said.

The bottom line, though, is the impact.

The principals at Cass and Renaissance said their schools may never be able to meet the graduation goals set by the state.

"This is a flaw that needs to be revisited," said George Cohen, principal at Cass.

Some suburban high schools had particular difficulty meeting the goal of having 95 percent of students take the MEAP tests.

Northville High School missed the requirement by nearly 4 percentage points, Northville Public Schools Superintendent Leonard Rezmierski said. The same 95-percent rule tripped up Grosse Pointe South.

Had 10 more students taken the math test, the school would have made it, Grosse Pointe Public Schools Superintendent Suzanne Klein said.

At Oak Park High School, low math scores hurt.

"We have to look at what's going on in individual classes," said Gary Marx, assistant superintendent for the Oak Park School District.

Marx is optimistic the trend will turn around in the same way academic achievement improved substantially at one of its elementary schools.

Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-351-3694 or higgins@freepress.com. Staff writers Teresa Mask, Melanie D. Scott and Frank Witsil contributed to this report.

— Lori Higgins, Chastity Pratt, and Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki
Detroit Free Press


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