Michigan test scores down sharply from pre-pandemic

Teacher holds a piece of paper in front of a classroom of students.
Classes are resuming in Michigan as the academic toll of the pandemic comes into focus through new test scores. (Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat)

Student scores on Michigan’s standardized test are sharply down from before the pandemic, underlining the severe academic toll of virtual learning and other COVID-related disruptions and traumas.

Last spring, 41.5% of third-graders statewide scored at least proficient in math on the exam, known as the M-STEP. That’s a decline of 5.2 percentage points from 2019, the last time the test was given before COVID-19 shuttered classrooms.

In English language arts, 41.6% of third-graders scored proficient or higher, a decline of 3.5 points from 2019.

With participation in the test returning to normal this spring, the results are among the strongest evidence available of the academic fallout from the pandemic.

“This year’s results indicate that Michigan students are still performing below pre-pandemic levels — with persistent and troubling opportunity gaps for our most underserved students,” Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said in a statement. She noted that Michigan has been “behind our peers across the nation for far too long, and long before the pandemic.”

The scores have high stakes for the lowest-scoring students and schools. About 6% of third-graders will be recommended for retention under Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law based on their English language arts skills, though fewer than half of students targeted for retention have been made to repeat third grade in years past.

The scores also play a major role in teacher evaluations and in the letter grades that the state gives to each school. The most academically troubled districts will be put under increased state scrutiny, known as a partnership agreement, that can lead to a takeover or closure if scores don’t improve.

The results also underscore research showing Michigan students learned less in virtual settings during the pandemic. Though many districts that rarely or never resorted to remote classes saw declines, districts that offered the most remote instruction saw some of the biggest drops in scores. 

In districts with at least 50 third graders, 127 districts saw the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in English language arts fall by 10 percentage points or more compared with 2018-19. Of those, 22% — or 28 districts — were fully remote for four months or more during the 2020-21 school year, while 54% were fully remote for just one month or none. Of the 37 districts to record gains of 10 percentage points or more, just two were remote for four months, or 5%. Far more — 70%, or 26 districts — were remote just one month or not at all.

Scores are down in most grades and subject areas across the state. For example:

  • 30% of high schoolers who took the SAT surpassed the benchmark college-readiness score in math, down from 36.3% in 2019.
  • 28.4% of sixth graders scored proficient or better on the math M-STEP exam, down from 35.1% in 2019.
  • 43.4% of fourth graders scored at least proficient on the English language arts test, down from 45.8% in 2019.

Amid growing concerns about students’ well-being, Michigan schools are spending billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief to address the academic and emotional impacts of the pandemic. Many educators say the toll would be much worse if not for that additional federal funding, which expires in 2024. This year, they’ll be further aided by a record state education budget that includes extra funding for low-income students and for teacher recruitment and retention.

Schools were required to give the M-STEP in 2020-21, but parents worried about COVID-19 were allowed to opt out. Many did so, and just 70% of students took the test compared with 95% this year, a figure in line with the historical average. Experts noted that comparing statewide results year-to-year doesn’t work when participation rates differ so widely.

Nationally, students are also suffering significant academic losses. The National Center for Education Statistics released nationwide results Thursday of reading and math scores on the NAEP, a test often referred to as the “the nation’s report card.” Reading scores dropped more than they have in over 30 years, and math scores dropped for the first time since the test first began in the early 1970s.

A call for new investments in proven policies

Students who skipped the test last year typically belonged to groups that faced the greatest challenges during the pandemic, including students who had spent the year learning online, students of color, students from low-income families and English language learners, state Superintendent Michael Rice said. The inclusion of those historically lower-scoring students this year may partly explain why statewide scores fell in most grade and content areas compared with last year.

Responding to the new test data, Rice said new investments are needed in evidence-based policies such as smaller class sizes, in-depth professional development, tutoring, and small-group instruction.

“Each of these things has a disproportionately greater benefit for those who need than for those who don’t,” he told Chalkbeat. “They have a disproportionately favorable impact on at-risk children than middle-class children.”

In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, Michigan’s largest, officials have set aside a portion of COVID dollars for small-group and one-on-one literacy tutoring for students several grades or more below reading level. The district’s scores remain well behind pre-pandemic levels, suggesting a long road ahead. Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti pointed to the various COVID-related disruptions of student learning during the 2021-22 school year as well as chronic absenteeism as significant factors in last spring’s test scores. 

The trauma of the pandemic, combined with dark headlines about climate change and school shootings, offer one explanation for falling scores, said Elizabeth Moje, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

“They’re looking around and going, ‘Gosh, the world is crumbling around us.’ There’s all this violence. How about school shootings? These are young people who are trying to make sense of their place in the world and asking ‘Where do I fit?’ and they’re being asked to learn abstract things that they don’t understand the purpose for learning. That in itself is stress-inducing.”

How to use the testing data

Testing experts cautioned against using the exam scores to draw conclusions about how schools performed during the pandemic given how much classroom time students missed.

“The word I would use is ‘grace,’” said Ed Roeber, assessment director for the Michigan Assessment Consortium, a nonpartisan education group. “There were a whole lot of people putting in 110% effort in getting kids taught.”

He said schools have the tools to accelerate student learning now that children are back at school. They can reduce class sizes, for example, or double check that every student is taught all the key concepts that show up on the test.

“Every child who’s tested can achieve proficiency,” he said. Schools can help them do so “not by practicing the test items but by looking at their instructional program and saying, ‘What kinds of skills do kids need to have?’”

At Westwood Community School District in Dearborn Heights, Superintendent Stiles Simmons said helping students recover includes both academic support and social-emotional support. His district is expanding a mentorship program it started last year for middle school students. He credits pandemic relief money for his being able to hire a districtwide social-emotional learning coordinator, who he said “has been a godsend.”

He said the M-STEP data can serve as a “baseline” and can be a “good exercise for maybe research purposes, but it doesn’t necessarily help us long term.“

“We need to really look at where we are now because that’s where our kids are,” he said.

In the Reeths-Puffer School District near Muskegon, 2021 scores dipped but have now returned to pre-pandemic levels for most grade levels for English language arts and in elementary grades for math. The district enrolls about 3,500 students, more than half of whom are considered economically disadvantaged by the state.

“I would say we’ve stayed relatively consistent through the pandemic,” Superintendent Steve Edwards said. “If you didn’t regress during the pandemic, I guess you can count that as a small win.”

He said he believes two factors contributed to that: the district’s decision to remain in-person for all of 2020-21, and its $500,000 investment in summer acceleration programming over the last two years. That funding came from federal COVID relief money that will run out in September 2024.

The pandemic funds provided “an immediate shot in the arm, but it could be detrimental to build systems and supports that people come to rely on, that then are no longer funded,” he said. “In the short term it’s great, but in the long term it makes me nervous.”

Brooke Brawley, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Niles Community Schools, said the testing information is helpful in determining what extra supports students need. But she said it’s important to remember these scores are only one data point among many that inform teachers on students’ academic levels. 

She said one area for growth would be looking at math scores and seeing how to use multi-tier systems to help students improve. A multi-tier system includes curriculum for all students and additional supports for students who need them.

Simmons, of Westwood, agreed. He said his district tends to focus more attention on benchmark tests that are administered three times a year, since they provide more real-time data of where students stand.

He expects to receive a comprehensive report from one of his employees Friday about how the district did. From there, he wants to analyze how the district compares with similar districts in size and demographics. 

The district used benchmark scores last school year to determine who should receive high dosage tutoring. Simmons said students who regularly attended tutoring sessions had better grades and better benchmark test scores. He said the district is considering working with companies that have strong after school tutoring programs as well. 

Frances Vicioso, a parent of a Kalamazoo Public Schools graduate, said the district’s results are very “concerning” but “absolutely what I expected.” 

She wants more equitable school funding, more accessible information for parents about the school district’s budget, and more understanding from others about the limitations of standardized testing.

One-third of Kalamazoo Public Schools third grade students were proficient or higher in English language arts while 30.7% of third grade students were proficient or higher in math. 

Kalamazoo’s third grade English language scores remained lower than the state average and had nearly the same size declines as the state from 2018-19 to 2021-22. In third grade math, however, the district’s proficiency rates fell nearly 7 percentage points, from 37.5% to 30.7%, compared with the 5 percentage point drop statewide (from 46.7% to 41.5%).

The district was fully remote for nine months during the 2020-2021 school year. 

Vicioso, a former middle school teacher, said students’ achievement can be measured in other ways, including verbal reflections, class participation, and projects. 

Vicioso is the co-director of Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Kalamazoo, an initiative that works to provide accurate historical narratives, build strong relationships and advocate for systemic change. She said she is concerned about many local students including students from low-income families and students of color.. 

“It tracks that the lack of services and lack of support would be reflected in these M-STEP scores,” she said.

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@chalkbeat.org.

Isabel Lohman covers education for Bridge Michigan. You can reach her at ilohman@bridgemi.com.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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