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US News ranks top 10 public high schools in Michigan

Half of the top 10 high schools in Michigan are located in wealthier communities and serve smaller proportions of low-income students compared with the state average, an analysis by the Detroit Free Press found.

Of the top 10, five are in communities with a higher median income than the state’s median income, $66,986, according to census data. Four are in communities with median incomes of $100,000 or more.

At seven of the 10 schools, a quarter or less of the students 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 considered economically disadvantaged.

“What they’re really doing is measuring opportunity,” Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said of the rankings in August 2023, which typically arrive every year to an avalanche of attention and headlines.

This year’s rankings placed the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills at the top of the list, followed by the International Academy of Macomb in Clinton Township and City High Middle School in Grand Rapids, according to state data.

International Academy in Bloomfield Hills.

U.S. News & World Report, a media organization known for school rankings, , and nearly 700 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. None of the top 20 schools in 2024 are in the city of Detroit, many are in surrounding suburbs. Renaissance High School in Detroit was ranked No. 145 on the list.

Some of the schools are also more rigorous by design, not intended to serve every student. International Academy is a magnet school, with an admissions process.

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, . 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 in August 2023, 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 US News calculates high school rankings

 take the following indicators into account:

  • College readiness (30%): This indicator takes into account the proportion of 12th grade students in 2021-22 who took least one advanced (AP or IB) test by the end of their senior year and the number who earned a qualifying score on the test. Some criticism around rankings like this stem from the fact that not all schools have the resources to offer AP or IB programs. U.S. New writes that “adjustments were made” so schools that don’t offer these classes aren’t significantly penalized.
  • 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.
  • 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 2021-22 tests. 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 2018-19 school year and graduated four years later, in 2022.

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. 10 on the list, is in Ann Arbor, where the district  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 in an August 2023 interview. Malkus is 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.

The  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 — , 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.”

Top 10 high schools in Michigan, ranked by US News

  1. International Academy, Bloomfield Hills
  2. International Academy of Macomb, Clinton Township
  3. City High Middle School, Grand Rapids
  4. Washtenaw International High School, Ypsilanti
  5. Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy, Saginaw
  6. Troy High School, Troy
  7. Northville High School, Northville Township
  8. Rochester Adams High School, Rochester Hills
  9. East Grand Rapids High School, Grand Rapids
  10. Skyline High School, Ann Arbor

Contact Lily Altavena: [email protected].