Detroit students improve reading, math scores across all tested grades

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Schoolchildren in the city scored a first in the five-year history of a statewide student exam: they improved their reading and math scores across all tested grades, according to state data released Thursday.

Results from the 2019 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, known as M-STEP, show proficiency levels increased on the English language arts test and math test for students in grades 3-7 at Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Fifth grade teacher Adriane Blair puts down cursive writing examples onto the desks during preparations for the start of the school year at Chrysler Elementary School in Detroit, Wednesday.

In grades 4-7, district students showed stronger growth than the state averages on the reading test, with proficiency increases ranging from 1.4 percentage points to 1.6 percentage points, compared with state's rates which range from a decline in proficiency of 0.7 percentage points to an increase of 0.8 percentage points.

In reading, in the critical area of grade 3, growth was 0.6 percentage points compared with the state's growth rate of 0.7 percentage points. 

INTERACTIVE:   Check your schools 2019 M-STEP test scores

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who took over the district in 2017, said two years of intense district-wide educational reform led to the results.

"I know what we are capable of doing and I knew we would improve," Vitti said. "It is indisputable that our students can learn at higher levels, and we can see these types of results across the district. It was just a matter of time for it to all come together."

Also: More than half of Michigan third graders fail in reading

Vitti credited the improvements to a new K-8 curriculum in reading and math instituted in last school year; improved teacher morale, which came through raises, step increases and bonuses as well as increased professional development; and district leaders focused on improving the school's culture.

"This shows our reform was right. And we can do much better. Now we have actual evidence that is happening," Vitti said. "This should signal to everyone we know what we are doing. We should be supported and given more space to scale the impact."

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti high-fives Caimile Moreland in the hallway during his visit at Schulze Elementary School in September.

District officials said the improvement in reading and math represents the strongest single-year improvement for the district since the inception of the M-STEP exam in 2015.

But actual proficiency rates for district students remain low compared with the state average. In third grade, 11.9% of students passed the reading test compared with the state average of 45.1% for third graders. In math, 16% of district third graders passed compared with 46.7% statewide.

Some Detroit Public Schools Community District schools had double-digit increases in proficiency. The Charles Wright Academy of Arts and Science saw its English language arts proficiency grow 18.9 percentage points in 2019 to 48.6%, and its math proficiency increase 19.6% to 48.6%, district officials said.

A total of four district schools had double-digit proficiency increases in reading. Eight had double-digit increases in math proficiency.

Under Michigan's third grade reading and retention law, school officials will have the power to retain struggling third graders this spring if they read a grade level behind on the state’s ELA assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

More: Michigan's top-performing SAT high schools in 2019

State officials say the decision to retain third graders will not be made using performance level rankings from M-STEP, such as "not proficient" or "partially proficient." Rather, Michigan will use a special scoring system to make third grade retention decisions under the controversial law.

The Michigan Department of Education announced in April that it approved a set of cut scores — selected points on a test's score scale — for third graders taking the M-STEP in 2020 that will be used to make decisions for retention.

At DPSCD, 3,450 third graders failed the ELA test. If the retention law had been in effect this past spring, Vitti estimates that about 18% of students would have been flagged for retention review.

Of those, about 8% would be eliminated due to state-approved exemptions, such as being an English language learner or having an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.

After additional exemptions were applied, including the use of a student portfolio to prove proficiency, Vitti said the number retained would be closer to 3%-5%.

"I'm not worried about a disproportionate number being retained next year," Vitti said. "We are going to apply all the exemptions under the law."

For high school students at DPSCD, test scores on the SAT declined as they did statewide.

The percentage of 11th grade DPSCD students meeting SAT college readiness performance benchmarks decreased in evidence-based reading and writing to 28.3%, down 2.3 percentage points from 2018.

The district’s curriculum reform efforts, which were initially focused on implementation at the K-8 grade levels, are expanding into high schools this coming year

The district has struggled with low test scores historically, on state tests like the M-STEP and on a national test known as the "Nation's Report Card."

In the last decade, the district has ranked dead last among 20 major urban cities in every subject on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

The last NAEP test was given to students in 2017 before Vitti came into the district and instituted reforms. Students took the test again in early 2019, but those results have not been released.

DPSCD board president Iris Taylor said she hears from students, teachers and parents that they can feel the difference in the classroom from the new curriculum and teacher training.

"We still have work to do but are moving in the right direction, and we must stay focused to create accelerated improvement that is long-term and sustainable,” Taylor said.

Mary Grech, a lead analyst at the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization, said the district's improved test scores are a sign of hope for the future of education in Michigan.

Between 2018 and 2019, the percentage of DPSCD students proficient in third grade math increased by 14% for Latino students, 5% for low-income students and 3.2% for African American students, Grech said.

“Across our communities, Michigan students deserve better,” Grech said.

“That means focusing state resources on the learning needs of students, supporting teachers to better meet the needs of students and making the difficult decisions to actually move Michigan toward becoming a top 10 education state."