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Detroit Students See Score Bump After School Mergers

A preliminary analysis of Detroit schools that were involved in mergers found improved reading and math test scores at many of them, according to information released Thursday.

The district-produced analysis looked at the 34 sets of schools that were combined after the closing of some Detroit schools after the 2008-09 school year. Twenty-three of those schools showed reading improvements on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program; math scores remained stable or improved in 18 schools.

For example: Students in Detroit's Munger Elementary school scored at 44.3 percent proficient or above on math exams in 2008-09. The school was closed and students were sent to Logan Elementary School, where 73.2 percent of students had tested at proficient or above that year. That rate increased to 85.8 percent for students at the merged Logan school during the 2009-10 school year.

The initial Detroit findings are in contrast to a study of school closures in Chicago released last fall by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which found students there often experienced unimproved academic performance when moved from a closed school, largely because they were placed in schools that were just as low-performing as the ones the school district had closed.

Closing low-performing schools is one element—often called a last resort—of the school turnaround plans promoted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief. The school turnaround regulations embedded in the federal School Improvement Grants also include measures that would replace principals and teachers in persistently failing schools.

In Detroit, the reasons schools were closed were as much or more financial than academic: The district has a multimillion-dollar deficit—at times estimated at more than $300 million—as a result of years of uncontrolled deficit spending.

Karen P. Ridgeway, executive director of the Detroit Public Schools Office of Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability, said in a phone interview Thursday evening that Detroit school officials were intentional in the placement of displaced students in schools they hoped would have positive results for students.

"It was a conscious attempt to move students to a school that performed as well or better as they did on MEAP the year before," she said. The hypothesis, she said, was that the new school would be a better learning environment that produced better results.

"It may be possible that is happening," she said.

Ridgeway emphasized that the results come from a preliminary analysis. While she said she is excited about the promising results initial data show, she intends to dig deeper this summer to examine how individual students fared after the mergers and to see how many of the students went to the new schools the district assigned them.

"The major thing that caught my eye was that in 14 schools, or 41 percent of the time, both reading and math increased. That, to me, bears further investigating," Ridgeway said.

The good news in Detroit isn't limited to these schools. The city's Renaissance High School was recently spotlighted by the College Board as the public school that produced the largest number of black students who scored a 3 or higher on the English Literature Advanced Placement exam last year.

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