Detroit district test scores gain on Michigan’s, but there’s a long way to go

After years of bleak academic results, the Detroit school district is a bright spot in newly released state test scores.

Amid mixed results statewide, most schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District saw improvements in the second year of a district-wide reform push by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He took over the district in 2017, becoming the first district leader appointed by the local school board after nearly a decade of state control.

Taken at face value, the results leave plenty of room for concern. Few schools in Detroit — or any other urban Michigan district with high levels of child poverty — met statewide averages in English and math. Many weren’t even close.

Across the state, 38.8% of students in grades 3-7 passed the math section of the exam. In the Detroit district, 10.2% did.

But that figure is up significantly from 6.7% last year, and individual schools made double-digit point gains, in some cases exceeding the state average. The share of students who passed the English test also ticked up. And more than half of the district’s K-8 schools — 62% — saw improvement across all grades and subjects compared to last year.

(A majority of Detroit students attend charter schools in and around the city. Those schools made gains, too: 71% of charter schools in Wayne County, which contains Detroit, saw their pass rate improve across all subjects in grades 3-8. A more detailed look at charter results is coming soon.)

District and city leaders pointed to the improvements as proof that the long-struggling district is beginning a turnaround.

“Hope is important, but now we’re moving into concrete evidence that this can happen,” Vitti said. “Now it’s not theoretical, it’s not aspirational.”

The news strengthens Vitti’s hand at a critical moment for the district and its 50,000 students. Even as the district’s budget has stabilized, its aging buildings urgently need more than $500 million in repairs. Prevented by state lawmakers from raising the money through taxes, Vitti will almost certainly need to seek help from philanthropies, businesses, or Lansing. The new results will likely come up in those conversations.

“This does provide an opportunity for the district to point out that there are some real improvements being made,” said Brian Gutman, director of external relations for EdTrust Midwest, a nonprofit that tracks education trends in Michigan. “But it’s not everything. There’s a long way to go.”

Experts typically caution that it’s difficult to attribute test-score changes to specific policy shifts. And one year of improvement doesn’t necessarily prove that we’re seeing the beginning of what would be a historic turnaround.

“It will be a couple of years before we know whether what we’re seeing is a blip, or a sign of a long-term trend,” Gutman added.

Still, he said the data is striking, especially when you consider that the district’s improvements in grades 3-8 outpaced the state’s average increase by a wide margin.

The districts pass rates on the SAT, a college readiness exam, were more mixed. The percentage of 11th-graders who passed the exam remained flat in most schools. SAT scores are down nationwide this year, the Michigan education department said. The Detroit district’s high schools will begin using a new curriculum this school year, a year after K-8 schools adopted new materials.

One standout K-8 school was Academy of the Americas, which saw its pass rate jump to 18 percent from 11 percent two years earlier across all grades and subjects. That translates to 43 additional students becoming proficient in English, math, or social studies.

The Academy, like all other K-8 schools in the district, began using new learning materials at the start of last year. A district-wide curriculum overhaul is perhaps the key pillar of a reform effort that has also included raising teacher salaries and hiring new principals.

District officials, and education leaders who’ve watched the district in recent years, say they expected its approach to yield results, just not so soon.

“I wasn’t expecting to see anything real significant until a few years from now,” said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne RESA, a county education agency that provides technical support for the district’s reform efforts. “They’ve been implementing the right steps.”

With a tough new third-grade reading law looming over the coming school year, the timing is especially welcome.

The number of Detroit district third-graders who passed the state English exam last year rose to 11.9%, up from 9.9% two years ago. That translates to 135 more students who are proficient in reading.

Beginning next summer, Michigan will hold back third-graders who fall behind in reading. The fact that more Detroit district third-graders passed test doesn’t guarantee that fewer students will be held back, because only some of the students who don’t pass the test are considered far enough behind to be retained.

But Vitti says more progress is coming.

“Nothing has ever been wrong with the children,” Vitti said. “If you use the right materials, you support the employees that are working directly with the children, the children will demonstrate that they’re capable.”

Search for your school’s scores using the tools below.

M-STEP grades 3-7

SAT grade 11

Source: Michigan Center for Educational Progress and Information. Figures are averaged across grades where a combined grade figure is not available. “N/A” means the figures are too small to be reported by the state without potentially identifying students.

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine teamed up to cover the state test scores. Click here to see Bridge’s report on how schools stacked up across the state.