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Michigan assessment scores reveal a decline in student learning during pandemic school year

Michigan’s standardized test results released Tuesday gave a peek into how virtual and hybrid classes during the COVID-19 pandemic affected student learning.

The M-STEP, the state’s federally mandated student assessment test, saw a decrease in test scores along with lower participation rates from previous years, according to a news release from the Michigan Department of Education.

State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice said comparing to any previous years’ scores would be difficult.

“The 2020-21 school year was such an uneven year with high health risks for students and staff, inconsistent technology, and variations in teaching and learning across the state,” Rice said in the release.

English Language Arts (ELA) and math assessments are required for third, fourth, six and seventh grades. Fifth, eighth and eleventh grade students are required to take ELA, math and additional science and social studies assessments.

The test score percentage of students considered “proficient or above” dropped between the 2018-2019 and the 2020-2021 school year in every eligible grade for math, social studies and science, and third through seventh grades for ELA.

The areas that saw the most significant decreases were a 3.7% gap in sixth grade ELA, a 6.5% gap in sixth grade math and a 2.9% gap in eleventh grade social studies.

Paula Herbart, President of the Michigan Education Association, called the data “questionable at best.”

“The ongoing pandemic has been hard on all of us, especially our students, who have struggled with the uncertainty of the past year and a half,” Herbart said. “Educators across our state have gone above and beyond to continue meeting the needs of students and we’ll continue to do so, regardless of what’s derived from these flawed standardized test results.”

Executive Director of The K-12 Alliance of Michigan, Robert McCann, also said the M-STEP wasn’t a useful tool to measure student growth this past year.

“We already knew students were struggling to varying degrees with online learning, but a standardized test was never going to give us the information that would help us know what any individual student would need help with,” McCann said.

The M-STEP was required to be administered by local school districts after being waived in 2020, but the state department of education noted that this years test was optional and fewer than 75% of students participated.

Students who took the state assessments were more likely to be from districts that offered in-person or hybrid learning. They were less likely to be students of color, economically disadvantaged students or English learners.

The state legislature also mandated benchmark assessments for kindergarten to eighth grades in order to give parents and educators a sense of where students were academically and how educators needed to move forward with individual students. Local school districts could choose from four national benchmark tests or create their own assessment.

The Michigan Department of Education, the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), the Michigan Data Hub, the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) at Michigan State University and Michigan Education Data Center (MEDC) at the University of Michigan compiled a report of the benchmark assessment data provided by districts.

In the report issued by EPIC, Michigan students appeared to make less progress toward learning goals across all subjects and grades than in a typical pre-pandemic school year.

EPIC Director Dr. Katharine Strunk said these results from the M-STEP and benchmark assessments were exactly what they expected.

“Learning was massively interrupted both in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and the assessments reflect disruptions in students’ opportunity to learn in the last two years,” Strunk said. “Moreover, given disparities in who took the test…the M-STEP scores released this week may be an overestimate of student progress during the pandemic.”

The report stated that scores from students’ fall 2020 NWEA MAP Growth assessment—the benchmark test used by the majority of Michigan school districts—indicated that they were on-track to reach similar proficiency rates to the last time the M-STEP was administered, but that this was no longer true in spring 2021.

Now that students have returned to school, Roby Leadriane, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, said the October MAP data will be the first real baseline understanding of where GRPS students are academically.

“We will use that data to drive instruction and student support moving forward,” Leadriane said.

The report also found that students who participated in benchmark assessments in both the fall and spring were more likely to be white and less likely to be economically disadvantaged or eligible for special education or English learner services, compared to the overall population of K-8 students in Michigan.

The 2020-21 school year was the first year that third grade students in Michigan were subject to the state’s Read by Grade 3 retention law. It requires third graders who score 1252 or below in the state’s M-STEP English proficiency test to stay in third grade.

In total, 3,661 third graders across the state had scores that made them eligible to repeat third grade because of low reading scores. Only 71.2% of third grade students took the grade 3 ELA M-STEP test this year.

The report showed disparities in retention eligibility rates by ethnicity, with African American third-grade students the most likely to be identified for retention and Asian and white students the least likely.

Strunk said she hopes that districts use the M-STEP scores, along with other benchmark and local assessments of student learning to create individualized plans to accelerate student learning this year.

“It is important that we meet students where they are and help them address their specific needs,” Strunk said. “While there is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution for educating kids, that is even more the case this year and in the years to come.”

Parents and educators are advised to view this data with caution, but Rice said that districts are encouraged to dig into their data at the school level to better understand and address these gaps in learning.

“Educators know what we need to do and have already begun to do it, with longer summer school programs, accelerated learning, with greater creativity, for more children and with earlier school year starts,” Rice said. “Across the country, it will require intense focus to address the gaps so apparent pre-pandemic and, in some cases and places, more so after 18 months of the pandemic.”

Read more on MLive:

Michigan students still have to take standardized tests this year and reactions are mixed, varied, assorted, diverse

Search 2019 M-STEP scores for your Michigan school