NAEP: Detroit students improve in math; Michigan moves up in rankings

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit fourth-graders significantly improved their scores in math on a national test, but overall, the city's students scored the lowest for the sixth time among 27 big-city districts nationwide, according to results released on Wednesday.

Test results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress also showed Michigan improved its ranking among states in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading as well as eighth-grade math, but the state remains near the bottom third in both subjects.

Michigan's student scores also slightly improved in fourth-grade math and reading as well as in eighth-grade math but not in a statistically significant way. Scores in eighth-grade math declined by more than two points compared to 2017, however.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent at Detroit Public Schools Community District, said all of the district's performance indicators are moving in the right direction, including enrollment, state assessment performance, attendance, teacher vacancies, financial systems and now NAEP performance.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer weighed in on the results and credited educators who have dedicated their lives to children.

“It’s great news for our students and families that we’re making progress on literacy,” Whitmer. "We’ve made a step in the right direction, and now we must continue to prioritize funding for early literacy and teacher pay and build a more equitable school funding system."

State officials said Michigan rose to 32nd in the nation among states in fourth-grade reading, up from 35th in 2017 and 41st in 2015. In eighth-grade reading, Michigan advanced to 28th in the nation, up from 30th in 2017.

State superintendent Michael Rice credited teachers, administrators and support staff for improving Michigan's ranking nationally and said it came despite a statewide teacher shortage and inadequate and inequitable state funding for the state's 1.5 million Michigan children.

"Our professional development efforts are beginning to bear fruit," Rice said. "Imagine how much more rapid our improvement could be if we invested more in our children and funded their specific needs ... rather than to simply fund the number of students."

One Michigan education expert said the results show Michigan has not made meaningful improvement for fourth-grade reading since 2003. 

"The data suggest that Michigan is many years away from becoming a top education state for all students, particularly students who are most left behind in our state," Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, said. "This new data should be a clarion call for changing how we invest and support public education for all children in our state."

Arellano said some key findings for Michigan from the 2019 NAEP include: 

• In fourth-grade reading, Latino students in Michigan have improved only about one third as much as Latino students nationwide since 2003. 

• African-American students in Michigan have improved at a far faster rate since 2003 in fourth-grade reading than African-American students nationwide.

• Between 2017 and 2019, Michigan low-income students led the nation for improvement in 8th grade math. Today, higher income students continue to outperform low income students in 8th grade math by 28 points.

In Detroit Public Schools Community District, average scores in Detroit moved more than 5 points in fourth-grade math since 2017. In fourth-grade reading, the increase was a modest 1-point increase compared to 2017.

"It's not easy to move math scores in two years," Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test, said of Detroit. "Clearly, there is much room for improvement. ... This is a strong showing for Detroit."

Achievement levels on the exam are basic, proficient and advanced. Students who score below basic lack fundamental skills, according to test officials.

In math, 38 percent of Detroit fourth-graders achieved at or above basic level, up from 29 percent in 2017, while 27 percent of eighth-graders tested at or above basic, the same number as in 2017.

In reading, 23 percent of Detroit fourth-graders tested at or above basic, up from 22 percent in 2017, while 39 percent of eighth-graders were at or above basic, down from 41 percent.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent at Detroit Public Schools Community District, said all of the district's performance indicators are moving in the right direction, including enrollment, state assessment performance, attendance, teacher vacancies, financial systems and now NAEP performance.

"With only one year of implementation, our fourth-graders quickly showed that they were ready and able to tackle at grade-level curriculum," Vitti said. "We have not been teaching to the ability and talent of our children. This is rapidly changing in our district, and I look forward to the 2021 NAEP results, where students will be exposed to aligned curriculum, high-quality instruction, and the support resources they need to demonstrate improvement."

DPSCD officials said fourth-grade achievement improved across all subgroups, including English Language Learners who improved in both subjects. Detroit ELL students outperformed their peers among all large urban school districts in eighth-grade reading and perform above the national and large urban school district average in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math, district officials said.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council for Great City Schools, a coalition of urban school districts, praised Detroit’s gains, saying it has shown substantial progress in fourth-grade reading and math.

"These are the greatest gains that Detroit has seen since it started taking the assessment," Casserly said. "In addition, Detroit held its own at the eighth-grade level while the nation was going down. Detroit’s gains show real promise for the city school district and its kids.” 

In 2019, the NAEP reading and math assessments were administered to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students in the nation, states, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools, and 27 participating large urban districts. 

Changes in mathematics scores were mixed over the two-year period, with an increase at Grade 4 and a decrease at Grade 8, test officials said.

Declines in reading at both grades were seen at all levels, whether students were high- or low-achieving, with the exception of the highest achieving fourth-graders, or those at the 90th percentile of achievement.

By contrast, score declines for lower-performing students drove the overall score decrease in Grade 8 mathematics. 

"Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest-performing students are doing worse," Carr said.

"In fact, over the long-term in reading, the lowest-performing students — those readers who struggle the most — have made no progress from the first NAEP administration almost 30 years ago."

Carr emphasized eighth-graders’ performance declined in both reading and mathematics.

"Eighth grade is a transitional point in preparing students for success in high school, so it is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here, especially the larger, more widespread declines across states we are seeing in reading," she said.

U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a statement Wednesday saying the results show the county is in an education crisis.

"Every American family needs to open the Nation’s Report Card this year and think about what it means for their child and for our country’s future," DeVos said. "The results are, frankly, devastating. This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students."