Michigan’s special education programs earned a higher ranking this year from the federal government  than last year, but it was largely because more students took state exams instead of achieving better academic performance.

Last year, Michigan made news when it was the only state in the nation identified as needing intervention from the U.S. Department of Education because of the poor academic performance, high dropout rates, and low graduation rates of its special education students. This year, the state has been identified as needing assistance, which means the federal education department can do things like provide expert advice on improving outcomes. The state could lose some federal funding with the “needs intervention” identification.

The state earned a higher score this year, improving from 59.17% to 65.28%.

The federal agency evaluates state special education programs on a number of factors, including the percentage of students who take state exams, performance on a national exam, graduation rates and dropout rates.

This year, most of the improvement Michigan saw came because of increases in participation rates on state exams. 

Another area of improvement: The dropout rate for students with disabilities improved slightly, from 28% to 29%.

All other academic factors used to evaluate states were unchanged because they’re based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which was last administered in 2017 in math and reading.

The Michigan Department of Education issued a press release touting the improved ranking, noting that this year marks the highest score the state has received since 2014.

“We are pleased with the trajectory of the growth and will continue to work to improve outcomes for every Michigan student. There still is much work to do around the areas of graduation rate, dropout rate, research-based best practices, and inclusion,” Scott Koenigsknecht, deputy state superintendent in Michigan, said in a statement.

Among the steps underway to improve results for special education, according to the release: A steering committee and four work groups have been working on recommendations to improve  graduation rates, dropout rates, M-STEP participation, and NAEP results and participation.

These results illustrate why Michigan has been at or near the bottom of state rankings.

  • 22% of fourth-graders and 34% of eighth-graders scored at or above the basic level in reading on the NAEP, which breaks down scores in four levels (below basic, basic, proficient and advanced).
  • 39% of fourth-graders and 19% of eighth-graders scored at or above the basic level in math on the NAEP.
  • 28% dropped out of school during the 2017-18 school year.
  • 63% earned a traditional high school diploma.