Michigan to withhold science test scores for two years

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
The Michigan Department of Education is planning not to release M-STEP science proficiency test scores this year as it continues to develop its assessment standards.

State education officials plan to withhold the public release of science scores from the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress for two years because they say the exam is a sample test that does not yet measure student proficiency.

The Michigan Department of Education says it plans next Wednesday to release scores in all other subject areas from the M-STEP — math, English Language Arts and social studies. 

But student scores from the science test, taken in April and May by students in grades 5, 8 and 11, are being withheld because state education officials are still developing the new computer-based science assessment through the 2019-20 school year and are continuing to vet test questions and make changes.

"We are not releasing student level data because a field test is designed to measure the quality and validity of the test and test questions, not the performance of students," Michigan Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Ellis said Wednesday.

This is happening even though the state hasn't received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to hold back the science tests scores and potentially could be rebuffed.

Local school districts will receive a basic summary report on the science test with data on schools, but not students. An annual report mailed to parents on M-STEP test results for their child will not include science scores.

The decision comes as Michigan is under scrutiny over languishing student performance, with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — commonly seen as key to developing a competitive workforce.

While some educators support the Michigan department's delay on releasing student science scores, some have questioned the reluctance to release individual scores to students and parents.

"The purpose of a field test is to verify that test questions measure the content standards. Student proficiency cannot be calculated until that verification is made," said Kate Cermak, a test administration and reporting manager for the Michigan Department of Education's office of assessment and accountability.

"While these new assessments continue to be computer-based, they do involve a variety of new item types and test designs that have not been used in past science assessments in Michigan," Cermak said.

The decision makes sense because the science test is new, said Brian Gutman, a spokesman for The Education Trust-Midwest — a nonpartisan, education policy, research and advocacy organization based in Royal Oak. 

"Pausing accountability this year and next makes sense. Students and teachers need to adjust to it," Gutman said.

But withholding data from students and parents does them a disservice, he said.

"This is an opportunity for students and for schools to learn where they are and where they need to improve. Information can still be useful in a low-stakes way for lessons," Gutman said.

Further complicating matters is that the Michigan Department of Education sent a draft waiver request to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Aug. 9 to allow the state not to report student scores for two years and not require students to take the previous science test, which is not aligned to the standards.

DeVos has 120 days to rule on the request. On Wednesday, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said the federal agency did not have a status update on the request.

It was not immediately clear why the Michigan's education department requested the waiver two weeks ago when state officials have known since 2017 that a field test would be administered.

When asked what the state would do if its waiver isn't approved in the near future, education officials would only say they have "every confidence the waiver request will be approved." Other states have applied and were granted this type of request, state education officials said.

What prompted score delay

The adoption of Michigan’s new K-12 science standards in 2016 created the need to replace past versions of the science test with a redesigned test that is aligned to new standards.

M-STEP results are used as part of Michigan's annual educational dashboard, which compares Michigan students with students in other states.

Along with science, the M-STEP assesses students in grades 3-8 in math and English and students in grades 5, 8, and 11 in social studies. There are roughly 105,000 to 110,000 students per grade who take M-STEP. 

The decision to withhold information about student achievement comes at a time when Michigan is under the microscope about languishing student performance.

Michigan has been on a slow decline compared with other states where students are realizing higher academic achievements, education experts said.

In 2017, Michigan third-grade reading scores had the largest decline in a subject area in the M-STEP's three-year history.

The percentage of Michigan third-graders passing the English language arts test — which measures reading, writing, listening and language — dropped to 44.1 percent in 2017, compared with 46 percent in 2016 and 50 percent in 2015.

Last year's M-STEP scores in science showed a slight decline in 2017 for fourth-graders statewide, with 14.6 percent measuring proficient compared with 14.7 percent the year before.

The decline was larger for seventh-grade students statewide. About 22.7 percent were proficient last year compared with 23.8 percent the year before.

Michigan's 11th-graders showed an improvement in science scores in 2017, with 33.6 percent proficient compared with 33 percent a year prior.

Daniel Patterson, director of assessment, research and evaluation for Dearborn Public Schools, said he is disappointed student scores will not be released for two years.

“It is a long time to go without test results. This creates kind of a void in measuring how we are doing. We want to know how our kids are learning and what adjustments to make,” Patterson said.

"We are right now working with our teachers to make some instructional practice changes to better align with the new science standards, and it does make it difficult for us to see how well those instructional practices are working,” he said.

Standards get field testing

The new standards for science education took three years of development, review and public information sessions. The Michigan K-12 Science Standards, based on the Next Generation Science Standards, replace the standards adopted in 2006 and introduce science and engineering practices, state officials said.

In 2017, knowing field tests would be conducted, state education officials moved M-STEP testing in science from grades 4, 7 and 11 to grades 5, 8 and 11.

Field tests given during the 2017-18 school year used "small clusters of items" in  physical science, Earth science and life science to first expose students to the new test, Michigan Department of Education officials said.

Next year's field test will include more items and will mimic the final test.

"For the 2018-19 school year, our plan is to administer a statewide field test of the entire assessment blueprint as designed for future operational use," MDE officials said in their waiver request to federal officials.

State education officials must get approval from the federal government to withhold the test results.

When public comment is analyzed and staff determines what changes are needed, the final waiver request will be signed by interim state Superintendent Sheila Alles and mailed to the U.S. Department of Education.

According to the state's letter to DeVos, granting the waiver request would ensure students will not "lose valuable instruction time in preparation for tests aligned with outdated science standards, which would yield results that lack any educational benefit for students, teachers or parents. It will also reduce the potential stress and psychological impact of extended standardized testing on students."

"We feel it would be burdensome on students to do the required field testing of the new assessment and take an old assessment on the old standards for the mere purpose of having reportable scores," Cermak said.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said his organization was unaware of the state's plans to withhold results in science but said, "This is a field test, and they are working on making sure the questions measure content standards."

Gary Farina, executive director of the Michigan STEM Partnership, a statewide organization that connects resources to needs in science, technology, engineering and math, said he supports the decision by Michigan officials to delay releasing science results.

"They are using the information internally to look at where there are gaps so they can put corrective measures and training in place," Farina said.

When asked whether withholding data on science scores for two years would hurt Michigan's push for STEM education statewide, Farina said he understands the concerns.

"It will be a concern to parents and the waiting game is always difficult," Farina said. "The fact is teachers haven’t had time to readjust (to the new test). The first point (of the test) is the baseline and there will be improvements and adjustment curriculum and instruction design."

"It’s a Catch 22. If you release early and it's not good, it’s a black eye. If you don’t release, then you aren’t transparent. This is an accepted process for a new test. You are measuring scores and the value of the assessment itself," he said.