State of struggle

On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class

PHOTO: Getty images

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.


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

PHOTO: Ian Lishman/Getty Images

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. 

And then there were two

Michigan’s governor’s race will be Whitmer vs. Schuette. Here’s where they stand on education

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer will face Republican Bill Schuette on November 6 in the race to become Michigan's next governor.

Former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Bill Schuette will face off in November in the race to become Michigan’s next governor.

The Associated Press called both races before 10 p.m. Tuesday as Whitmer coasted past two opponents in the Democratic primary and Schuette easily topped the four-candidate Republican field. 

The winner of the general election on November 6 will likely have an enormous impact on education across the state in coming years.

The next governor, who will replace term-limited Republican Rick Snyder, could preside over school closings. He or she could influence how schools are funded and measured, and could make crucial decisions about whether to expand preschool or address the rising costs of higher education.

Before the primary, Chalkbeat joined with a team of reporters from the Detroit Journalism Cooperative to interview six of the seven major-party candidates on a range of topics. We published their answers to key education questions, along with videos of the candidates’ education responses.

Schuette declined to participate in those interviews but later sent written answers to the questions. Unlike other candidates, his answers were not subjected to follow up questions.

Scroll down to read Whitmer and Schutte’s responses, edited for clarity and length. A full transcript of Whitmer’s answers to all of the questions in the hourlong interview is here.