July 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

4 Michigan districts get a zero for students' college readiness

While statewide scores edged up this year on the 2014 Michigan Merit Exam, some of Metro Detroit’s poorest school districts remain mired in failure.

At four — Ecorse, Highland Park, River Rouge and Westwood — not one of the students who took the MME and ACT exams did well enough to be considered “college and career-ready,” according to results released Monday by the Michigan Department of Education.

Several other districts, including Oak Park, Pontiac and the Education Achievement Authority, avoided a goose egg but fell below 1 percent. To be college-ready, students must be proficient in all four ACT test areas.

For Ecorse and River Rouge, this is the fourth straight year none of their 11th-graders reached the college-ready benchmark.

All four of those districts have significant African-American populations — ranging from 46.4 percent in Ecorse to 93.5 percent in Highland Park, according to 2010 census figures. And median household incomes are well below the state average of $48,471 a year, according to census data from 2008-12.

Even wealthier districts with strong academic reputations are struggling to meet the state career and college-ready standard. In Metro Detroit, just one district had more than half of its students qualify — Bloomfield Hills, at 60.3 percent.

Some education experts say poverty and racial disparities impede student achievement, but they argue the struggling districts and state education officials can improve outcomes.

“Poverty is not destiny for students or their learning levels,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a think tank based in Royal Oak. “Terrific-performing, high-poverty schools across the country prove this.”

Robert Floden, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said upgrades in several areas are needed to boost achievement in low-performing schools.

“What action should be taken? Some combination of efforts to address nutrition, health and early education, as well as working to improve curriculum and instruction,” he said.

District officials say they’re working to boost performance.

Thomas Parker, who became superintendent of the Ecorse schools last year, said the district is working with Johns Hopkins University to institute “instructional best practices to increase student achievement” and is offering free Kaplan ACT classes to all 11th-graders.

“The district improved in four out of five categories in ACT/MME data this year,” he said. “We are not where we want to be yet, but we are improving.”

Flavian Prince, an educational consultant hired by the River Rouge schools, said a reform program begun in the district last August is using a “skill-based instructional model” to help students catch up academically.

Westwood Superintendent Sue Carnell said the district, which includes students from Dearborn Heights and Inkster, is beefing up its academic offerings. “What we’re doing to make a change is adding more rigorous classes, including more math and English language arts,” she said.

Carnell, whose district has a $3 million deficit, said more revenue is needed for schools to improve student performance. “Funding has a lot to do with helping school districts make state targets,” she said.

EAA results up slightly

The EAA’s rate of 0.1 percent college and career-ready was actually better than last year, when none of the students in its 15 Detroit schools qualified.

The district’s interim chancellor, Veronica Conforme, said in a statement that the state-run recovery district is working to improve student outcomes. “This is a slight improvement and we are not where we need to be,” she said. “We are working on long-term goals with an outcome that all students will graduate college, career and workforce ready.”

In the Oak Park schools, the percentage of college and career-ready students dipped from 0.3 percent last year to 0.2 percent.

On the positive side, Superintendent Daveda Colbert said the district ranked outside the state’s lowest 5 percent of schools for the second straight year. “We are continuously working to improve instructional practices and interventions that improve student achievement,” Colbert said.

State averages up

Overall, the state’s average ACT score rose for the fourth year in a row, reaching 19.8, up from 19.3 in 2011. ACT scores range from 1 to 36. The assessment tests are given annually to high school juniors and are taken in the spring.

On the MME, scores rose in all five categories — reading, writing, social studies, math and science. Proficiency rates for 2014 ranged from 58.7 percent in writing to 28.4 percent in science.

The biggest gains were in social studies and reading, with jumps of 5 points or higher. After a downward trend for several years, 43.9 percent of students were considered proficient for 2014 compared with 38.6 percent in 2013. In reading, proficiency rates jumped from 53.5 percent in 2013 to 58.7 percent in 2014.

Still only 17.8 percent of high school juniors are considered “college-ready” in all subject areas on the ACT — math, science, reading and English. Last year, the number was 18.1 percent.

At Detroit Public Schools, officials saw a slight drop in ACT scores and a slight rise in career and college-ready numbers. Of the 2,622 students tested, the average ACT score was 16.4 this year, compared with 16.6 last year. The percentage of career and college-ready students was 2.7, up from 2.3 in 2013.

“The district remains committed to ensuring that all of its students are college and/or career ready, and students’ increase in college readiness scores ... shows that while much work remains, the district is trending positively in this important area,” DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said in a statement.

(313) 222-2269