Michigan schools continue to flounder in the bottom third of the nation.

Scores released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card,” indicate Michigan schools have made little progress in recent years despite years of sounding alarms by state, business and education leaders.

According to NAEP results — from tests given to a sample of students in every state in 2017 — Michigan ranks 35th in fourth-grade reading skills. That’s up from 41st in 2015, but still notably lower than the 28th the state was ranked in 2003, the first year Michigan participated in the test.

Michigan also saw a small improvement in state rankings in fourth-grade math (38th, from 42nd), eighth-grade math (33rd, from 34th) and eighth-grade reading (30th, from 31st).

But beneath those rankings, there is little to celebrate. Consider:

  • Michigan’s rank in fourth-grade reading went up six spots. But that’s mainly because other states’ scores dropped. The average score Michigan students earned on that test was higher as recently as 2011.
  • In fourth-grade math, Michigan students score average was the lowest in the state’s history of taking the test, back to 2003.
  • Eighth-grade math scores have remained virtually unchanged for 14 years.
  • Low-income fourth-graders rank 49th in math, compared to poor students in other states; white students are 46th in fourth-grade reading compared to white students elsewhere.
  • We rank last in the Midwest in every category.

While the test indicates that Michigan may have arrested its more than decade-long educational slide, it also enumerates just how far the state is from becoming a top 10 state in education, the goal set by the Michigan Department of Education to be reached by 2026.

Why NAEP scores matter

State-level tests, such as Michigan’s M-STEP, offer comparisons of schools within state borders, but say nothing about how Michigan students fare against their peers in other states.

That’s where the NAEP comes in. The biennial NAEP test results gives education leaders, politicians and families of school children state-to-state comparisons of education systems. Without NAEP, Michigan would have difficulty determining if its schools are doing great or horribly.

The test is administered to about 300,000 students in public and private schools nationally, along with 27 urban districts including Detroit.

“The Nation’s Report Card provides us with the very best data we have to understand how our students stack up against those in other states,” said Michelle Richard, an education researcher and vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy firm.

Those results have not been kind to Michigan. “Over the past decade, Michigan’s NAEP results have been stunning,” Richard said.  “Nearly everyone else is doing better than we are. Why? What are they doing that we’re not?”

Here’s how Michigan reading scores compare to the national average.

Focus on leading states

“Any improvement is a good thing,” said Elizabeth Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, who examined the NAEP results for Bridge. “The fact we’re doing better than we were is good.

But Moje urged policymakers to be cautious about celebrating a slight improvement in state rankings, and instead look at what can be learned from leading states.

Massachusetts leads the nation in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades. Massachusetts fourth-graders scored about 1.5 grade levels higher in reading than the average fourth-grader in Michigan (a 10-point NAEP scoring gap is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning).

RELATED: You can see sample math questions here and reading questions here.

Massachusetts education leaders “do some pretty amazing things,” Moje said. “They’re investing in education. It’s a systems approach, not individual districts” figuring out what to do.

“Instead of using (NAEP) scores to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing better (than we were), we should be saying, ‘Who do we want to be like, and what are they doing to get there, because they’re not that different from us,’” Moje said.

Sarah Lenhoff, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wayne State University, said Michigan’s scores are basically flat. “You don’t want to improve your rank because a few other states are doing worse,” Lenhoff said. “That’s not improvement.

“The rank is a useful guidepost,” Lenhoff said, “but when we’re actually talking about the kind of learning we want our students to experience, the kinds of skills we want them to have when they move on to college and the workforce, the rank is less useful than looking at the average scores and thinking about how little progress we’ve made in changing the trajectory of student success.”

Lenhoff said she is particularly distressed by achievement gaps between white and African-American students. In fourth-grade math, Michigan’s  African-American students are the equivalent of three grade levels behind whites. Poverty doesn’t account for all of that gap – the divide between poor and non-poor fourth-graders is about half as wide as the divide between African-Americans and whites.

“That’s completely unacceptable that we have a group of students not learning,” Lenhoff said.

Test scores are stubbornly aligned with family income. The gap between test scores earned by those qualifiying for free or reduced lunch and those who do not has remained steady, both in Michigan and most states.

At least a dozen reports have been published in recent years focusing on how to improve Michigan schools.

“The fact we haven’t improved is concerning,” Lenhoff said of the latest NAEP scores. “We need a major reform in investment to make us happy and proud in 10 years.”

The Michigan Department of Education released a statement on the NAEP results, noting that while Michigan’s scores “have ticked-up slightly and we’ve gone up in the state rankings, we know there is a lot more work to do.

“These tests were given in 2017 when we were one year into our efforts to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years. Michigan is not yet where it needs to be. There is a Top 10 in 10 plan, we need to stick with it, and give our students and educators the opportunity to keep improving.”

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover the nation’s report card on schools. This story on Michigan scores came courtesy of Bridge. Click here to see Chalkbeat’s report on Detroit scores.