Michigan is failing its students, as state test scores keep tanking

Michigan schools seem to be getting even worse.

That’s the unavoidable, sobering summary from Wednesday’s release of the state’s latest standardized test scores, given to public school students in grades 3-8 and 11th grade.

Despite years of education reform, millions of dollars in targeted spending, closures of underperforming schools and the impending threat of flunking third-graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading, scores on the M-STEP sank even lower this past school year in most grades and test subjects.

And trend lines are going in the wrong direction. More third-graders were poor readers in the 2017-18 school year than in 2016-17 — marking the fourth consecutive year that the share of poor readers in Michigan third-grade classrooms has grown.

While slightly more third graders were rated proficient this past year (44.4 percent, up from 44.1 percent) in tests that measure reading and writing, there was an even greater increase in the percent who showed no (as opposed to partial) proficiency.

Across all 15 tests in math, English and social studies (across seven grade levels), overall proficiency rates were down on 11 of those tests — while the percent rated “not proficient” rose in 12 of the 15.

(Scroll down to see how your school did or compare the scores of as many as six schools. To read a story about statewide scores, click here).

Growing chorus for change

“It’s always risky to read too much into a one-year reading” of state test scores, said Jeff Guilfoyle, vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based consulting and research firm. “That said, the numbers are not good. An alarming number of our kids are rated non-proficient in math and reading and the number is growing. Addressing this needs to be a top priority for policymakers.”

Education was already a major issue in the state’s gubernatorial election, with Michigan’s students mired in the bottom third of the nation in academic performance. But the release of Wednesday’s M-STEP scores could increase public pressure to seek a dramatically different approach to improving the state’s schools.

Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Bill Schuette has made improving early reading a priority in his campaign, calling for reading “coaches” in every school. His campaign called the latest test scores “a tragedy for students and an embarrassing deterrent to economic growth.”  

“It is a tragedy that we have some of the lowest reading scores in America,” Schuette told Bridge through campaign spokesman John Sellek in an email. “Where ever you live, we should all be outraged.”

Schuette vows that, if elected, he would appoint a state literacy director and would promote a reading foundation to which philanthropic foundations and businesses can contribute to programs such as hiring more reading coaches, creating summer reading camps. Schuette also has said he will bring more focus to career-technical education.

“We need to hold schools accountable for student outcomes, but at the same time give them more freedom and flexibility to decide the best way to achieve those outcomes, rather than constantly imposing burdensome, one-size-fits-all mandates and requirements from Lansing,” Schuette said. “As governor, I’ll work with parents, schools and other stakeholders to create a simple, fair rating system that provides useful data and drives school improvement.

Schuette also agreed with some critics, including many Republicans, who complain that the current state education system “scatters responsibility for education over a number of public entities, rather than investing it primarily in any one body or person.” Changing that dynamic might include “letting the Governor, rather than the Board of Education, appoint the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.” Such a change would require a state Constitutional amendment.

Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer told Bridge that her education plan would address declining student achievement by fighting for universal preschool, shoring up literacy programs as well as adding “counselors, social workers, school nurses, school security, healthy meals and safe transportation.”

Whitmer has said she would pay for it all by “eliminating the $100-plus million in School Aid Fund money being spent out of the state budget on a variety of legislators’ pet projects and ending raids on the School Aid Funds once and for all,” she wrote in an email to Bridge.

“By doing this, we will infuse three-quarters of a billion dollars into our public education system. We’re also going to maximize the state’s federal drawdown for childcare. My plan will more than pay for itself.”

Questions about test’s value

M-STEP —  Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress —  is Michigan’s annual assessment of students, which is required under federal education law. It measures English language arts, math, social studies and science knowledge in grades 3-8 and 11.  (The state adopted new science tests this year and results were not released because the Michigan Department of Education said the tests themselves were being tested.)

Some education advocates are taking a cautious attitude toward the 2018 results because of substantial changes adopted by the state. The tests were made shorter and included fewer sections than in prior years — a move that angered some.

State education officials said they cut the length of the annual test in order to free up time for more targeted and frequent “benchmark” tests at the school level that teachers could use to address student weaknesses.

But those changes also raise questions about comparability of the 2017-2018 results with previous years, said Amber Arellano, executive director The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan policy, research and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak.

“Uncertainty about this data hinders educational improvement efforts across the state,” Arellano said.

EdTrust noted that many of the yawning gaps in achievement between white students and black and Hispanic students persist in the data. Those gaps narrowed slightly in 2017-2018, but more often because the  proficiency rates of white students fell faster than those of minority students, and not because minority student scores were improving.

For instance, in fifth grade, the percent of black students in the state proficient in English language arts fell from 24.8 to 20.7 percent over the past school year.  For Hispanic students, proficiency dropped from 39.4 to 36 percent. But among white students, the numbers fell even farther, from 58.6 to 53.8 percent.

“Huge gaps in learning outcomes are holding back Michigan’s economic vitality, and require policy leaders to not only invest ‒ but to invest more strategically ‒ in dramatically raising literacy levels through new, thoughtful systemic approaches,” Arellano said in a statement.

Large gaps also exist between poor students and those who aren’t. For instance, just 30.3 percent of all students in poverty were proficient in English language arts, less than half of the proficiency rate (62 percent) of students who aren’t poor. In math the gap was 54 percent to 22 percent. The gaps were similar in previous years.

Unlike the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) which is given to students across the country, M-STEP tests are taken by all Michigan students and cannot easily be compared with scores of students outside Michigan.

The NAEP is a biannual test that is only taken by a sampling of students in grades 4 and 8 in every state and, like the state test, has steadily chronicled Michigan’s steady decline. Michigan has seen its NAEP rankings fall precipitously in the last two decades as scores have stagnated and fallen.

Pockets of success –  and struggles

Proficiency rates in Detroit, the state’s largest district, were up on a few tests, including third and fourth grade reading. But overall, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students were proficient on eight of the 15 tests. The city has one of the poorest populations in the country and poverty has been linked to poor academic performance.

M-STEP scores were worse in Flint, where fewer than 8 percent of all students were proficient in English language arts and fewer than 5 percent in math. Nearly 80 percent of Flint students showed no level of proficiency in math and ELA. Like Detroit, Flint, which has been plagued by years of torment over lead-poisoned water, also has one of the poorest student populations.

Indeed, students from wealthier districts scored far better. More than 75 percent of all students in Novi, Northville and East Grand Rapids were proficient in English language arts, well above the 43.9 percent statewide.

Test scores rose in some districts, such as Traverse City or in Dundee just south of Ann Arbor. But declined in many other districts as well.

“We know we have pockets of success,” said Susan Townsend, of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, who participated in a round-table discussion hosted Monday by the state to talk about early literacy efforts. “But we need that across the state.”

Her goal is similar to Schuette’s — putting reading coaches into 2,000 schools statewide. “If we could have a coach in every building, that would be the dream.”

How many third-graders will repeat?

The stakes will rise considerably a year from now, following next spring’s M-STEP test, when Michigan third-graders who are more than one grade behind in reading skills on the M-STEP will face the possibility of being held back in 2019-20 under a law passed in 2016.

The education department hasn’t finalized how it will determine who will be held back, but it is safe to assume those children will be drawn from the group who are in the bottom category of M-STEP scores, labeled “not proficient” in English language arts –  and that group of students has increased markedly in the last four years.

In 2014-2015, 24 percent of third graders were judged “not proficient” in English language arts. That percentage has steadily risen and was at 31 percent in 2018. That 31 percent represents nearly 37,000 Michigan students, roughly a third of all students on last spring’s test. If the rate had stayed steady at 24 percent, more than 7,000 fewer third graders would have been “not proficient.”

That increase in children rated “not proficient” in English language arts – reading is a subset of the ELA score – is even more disturbing, because the state has spent $80 million to improve early learning to avoid holding tens of thousands third-graders back.

Where that leaves state policymakers isn’t exactly clear. But Guilfoyle, of PSC, suggests the state needs to step in to help vulnerable students at an even younger age to make a difference.

“We need to focus on early investment and make sure kids are arriving at kindergarten on track,” he told Bridge. “Then  we need to do whatever it takes to keep them on track as they move through the K-12 system.”

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover state test scores. This story on state scores was from Bridge. Click here to see Chalkbeat’s report on how schools performed in Detroit, particularly schools that were targeted for closure last year. For a breakdown of the scores by subject, demographic group, and grade level, see the database posted by Bridge.

Or, scroll down for our database, which allows users to compare overall math and English scores at up to six schools or districts in Michigan by typing in their names.