Keeping score

Some M-STEP scores are up slightly in Detroit and across the state — but reading scores were ‘disappointing.’ Look up your school’s scores here

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

Coming off a tough year in which nearly two dozen Detroit schools were threatened with closure because of years of low test scores, the city school system is starting the new school year with a bit of good news: District scores are up slightly on average in several grades and subjects compared to last year.

The 2017 M-STEP scores, released Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Education, show that the vast majority of Detroit students are still struggling. Just 9.9 percent of third-graders posted a passing score on the state English Language Arts exam while 12.3 percent of third graders passed the math test.

But passing rates were up slightly for Detroit district students in third, fourth and seventh grade math compared to 2016 and the percent passing the reading test was up in 5th and 6th grades.  (Details here).

(Scroll down to see results for all Michigan schools).

Across the state, Michigan students on average showed improvement in math and social studies and posted mixed results in science but reading scores were troubling.

“The spring 2017 results show math and social studies scores are continuing to improve, and that is exciting news,” state superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement. “The English language arts scores are disappointing, however.”

The disappointing scores come as schools across the state are gearing up for tougher new third-grade reading requirements. Beginning in 2020, state law will require schools to hold back third graders who can’t pass the reading test.

Because the M-STEP is administered primarily only in grades 3-8, the new tougher law doesn’t apply to kids who took the exam last spring. The first kids to be subjected to the new law are now entering first grade but this year’s scores will likely serve as a wake-up call to schools across the state. In third grade, just 44.1 percent of students passed the exam in 2017 compared to 46 percent of third-graders in 2016 and 50 percent in 2015.

“It is important that we keep working with [county intermediate school districts] and local school districts to provide support and assistance to help all of their students achieve at higher levels,” Whiston said. “I am confident that investments in early childhood education and literacy supports will bring improvement and growth. We need to stay focused and diligent.”

The M-STEP exam was administered last spring for the third time. The exam first replaced the MEAP test in 2015.

The state Tuesday also released SAT scores, which Michigan is using for the second year to measure student performance in 11th grade. Across the state, SAT scores were up compared to 2016 while they were down slightly in Detroit.

The M-STEP and SAT are the high-stakes exams that have been used in recent years as the primary basis to calculate school rankings in Michigan. Officials have used those rankings in the past to identify schools for state intervention. Earlier this year, the state put 38 schools — including 24 in the city of Detroit — on notice that they would be closed after landing in the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row. (Changes to the way those rankings have been calculated have been controversial).

The state backed down on school closings after strong political and logistical opposition and entered into “partnership agreements” with the affected districts that gave those districts 18 months to turn things around.

How those schools performed on the M-STEP is difficult to tell from publicly released data because, in many of those schools, scores have been so low in the last two years that the scores fell below the 5 percent threshold for state reporting.   

Click here for more details on how the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Education Achievement Authority performed on average on the exam. The EAA schools became part of the main Detroit district last month after five years in the state-run recovery district.

For more information about how schools performed on the test across the state, here’s a press release from the Michigan Department of Education.

Look up scores for individual schools across the state below. Just type in your school’s name. Or go to the state education department website to download extensive data on the scores including those for special education students and other groups. 

Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Making Montssori

A popular new Montessori program in Detroit’s main district may expand into its own separate schools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

Detroit’s main district is considering expanding its popular Montessori program, including possibly creating free-standing Montessori schools designed to draw students from around the city.

The possible changes could represent a major shift for the two-year-old program, which now operates in 14 classrooms in six schools.

Montessori parents have been on high alert in recent weeks. Told that changes are coming to the program, they’ve been worried that new Montessori schools would mean an end to existing programs.

“My son keeps asking ‘where am I going to school next year?’” parent Maria Koliantz told Chalkbeat last week.

Koliantz, who has two children in the Montessori program at Maybury Elementary School in Southwest Detroit, said a sense of brewing change has been affecting parents and teachers.

“I just keep trying to assure him,” she said of her son. “But … I hate that the uncertainty has affected him.”

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says there are no plans to move existing programs. Questioned by Koliantz at a school board community meeting Tuesday night, Vitti assured her the district would only add new programs, not close existing ones.

“We have no intention of discontinuing that program,” he said. “It’s a vehicle to recruit parents to the school system. I don’t think you’re going to see anything but expansion.”

Since his arrival in Detroit last spring, Vitti has talked about the need to give every school in the district a distinct identity, with some schools focusing on math and technology and others perhaps developing a focus on creative writing.

Vitti revealed Tuesday morning that the district is considering eventually creating three arts schools for children who’ve been identified as gifted or talented.

New Montessori schools are also on the table, he said. “The new schools will be announced by the end of March as we work towards ensuring that every school has a identifiable and distinct program to improve performance and enrollment.”

Freestanding Montessori schools could represent a new chapter for a program that was launched in Detroit two years ago as a hybrid system, with Montessori classrooms operating next to traditional classrooms in a handful schools.  

The program, which allows children to learn at their own pace in mixed-age classrooms, started in 2016 with classrooms serving pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, as well as some students in grades 1-3 at Spain, Maybury and Edison elementary schools. The program more than doubled in size in 2017, adding classrooms in the first three schools and expanding into three more — Chrysler, Palmer Park and Vernor elementary schools.

But while the current structure at the six schools has been popular with some parents, it has also created some difficulties.

The Montessori program is run by a director, Nicola Turner, who hires teachers for the program, oversees their training, and supports them as they implement the Montessori curriculum. But those teachers also work for their school principals — a dynamic that can create complications.

In some schools, there has been tension between parents and teachers affiliated with the Montessori program and those connected to traditional classrooms. Since the Montessori programs tend to have more teachers and fewer students than traditional classrooms, that’s raised issues of fairness and equity.

The current setup has also created challenges aligning the Montessori curriculum with the structure and schedules of a traditional school. In an ideal Montessori classroom, for example, students would have an uninterrupted three-hour block to work on their core lessons, but that isn’t always possible in a school where many factors determine when students can have lunch, go to recess or take art and music classes.

Freestanding Montessori schools could avoid some of those problems — and potentially offer some advantages.

“We could do after-school programs that were Montessori-specific,” said Yolanda King, who has a son in the program at Spain Elementary and a younger child she hopes to enroll next year. Special classes like art, music and gym “could be more aligned to Montessori” in a freestanding school, she said, suggesting “yoga programs and whole food programs.”

Turner, the Montessori program director, declined to comment about the possible changes but an email she sent to parents this month indicates they were fairly divided about the prospect of freestanding schools.

Nearly half — 48 percent — said they preferred keeping Montessori classrooms in their current schools while 37 percent liked the idea of a Montessori school. About 15 percent did not indicate a preference.

Dan Yowell is among parents who’ve raised concerns that freestanding schools might feel removed from the rest of the district.

“We liked the fact that [Montessori] is accessible to people all over the city,” said Yowell, whose son is in the program at Spain.

A freestanding Montessori school “has a feeling that it’s more exclusive,” Yowell said. “I don’t want it to be perceived as something that only certain people can access.”  

Spain, in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood, is one of two schools with Montessori classrooms that has enough space to dramatically expand the program. The other one is the Palmer Park Academy, which is in northwest Detroit.