Lansing — Michigan education officials are moving up the window for the statewide spring assessment by a week to give parents of third graders more time to appeal test results that could lead to their child's retention.

According to two memos obtained by The Detroit News, the Michigan Department of Education "strongly urges" school districts to begin testing third graders in the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, at the start of the test window to allow educators to meet deadlines in the law involving communicating with families about retention decisions.

MDE Deputy Superintendent Venessa A. Keesler released the memos, saying after continued review of the state's third-grade reading law, which allows educators to retain struggling third graders beginning this spring, the department has decided to adjust the M-STEP testing schedule to provide districts with more time to address the 30-day parental appeal window under the law.

"The second testing window, formerly scheduled to open on May 4th and close on May 29th, will now open on Monday, April 27th and close on Friday, May 22nd. This affects tested grades 3, 4, 6 and 7," the education department memo states.

The controversial law, adopted in 2016, stops third grade students from moving to the fourth grade — with some exemptions — if they read a grade level behind on the state's English Language Arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

"MDE understands that districts may have already set their testing schedules," the memo says. "This does not require that any district change those schedules unless they choose to do so or unless they were planning to test the week of May 25th after Memorial Day."

Keesler issued a second memo on Thursday, saying the department "strongly urges districts to begin third-grade ELA M-STEP testing at the beginning of the testing window."

"The law describes specific timelines and dates that districts and families must know and follow. To meet the deadlines, communication between districts and families is important," the memo says.

A student’s preliminary M-STEP score will be used to determine possible retention. Districts will be able to see the preliminary scores in a secure site within 24 to 48 hours after the student has completed testing, state officials said.

"Checking the test scores regularly will maximize time for district communication

to families about next steps to support the child," the memo says.

The memo also says that the education department "strongly urges" districts to send their own communication home to parents/guardians in advance of the official communication from the state.

District officials on Thursday said they were unaware of the changes to the test window and were reviewing the state's request to test third graders first. Typically, local districts decide when during the test window to test certain grades and subjects.

"It's a surprise," Novi Superintendent Steve Matthews said on Thursday of the state's announcement. "It's only a week, but still you are testing students a week earlier than they would."

Matthews said a major concern is if whether earlier testing will affect test outcomes. He said the state is urging districts, not forcing them.

With a four-week testing window, some districts might have planned to test their third graders at the end of the window, Matthews said.

"If you are testing them earlier, will that impact how well they do?" Matthews said. "That potentially may drive some scores down."

MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa said under the law, if a child’s reading score on the M-STEP is more than one year below grade level, his or her family will be notified by June 1 of that school year.

"If the family disagrees with the decision, it has 30 days after receiving notice of potential retention to request a meeting with the child’s school and to file for a Good Cause Exemption," DiSessa said. "The school then must decide whether to retain the child at least 30 days before the start of school."

In 2019, the Michigan Department of Education approved a set of cut scores — selected points on a test's score scale — for third graders taking the M-STEP in the spring that will be used to make decisions for retentions. 

Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information will be sending certified letters to students who score below 1253 on the ELA M-STEP assessments and who are eligible for retention.

Families receiving a letter will have 30 days from the date of the letter to contact the district superintendent and request their child not be retained.

The final decision for retention is made by the local district superintendent. Districts are to notify families of their retention decisions at least 30 days before the start of the 2020 school year. 

In some districts, the 30-day appeal window will extend beyond the close of the school year, state officials said in the memo.

"MDE strongly encourages districts to have a plan to communicate early to parents in advance of the official communication from the state ... and to ensure there are plans in place to answer questions and address appeals from parents that may come after the close of school," the memo says.

Districts must finalize and communicate information regarding the process for requesting an appeal including the options available to parents and information on how to request good cause exemptions.

According to 2019 results, 54.9% of third graders — or 55,336 students — scored less than proficient on the English language arts test.

But only 5% of third grade students would have been held back under the state's new scoring system had it been applied to 2019 scores.

Peter Spadafore, associate executive director for advocacy and communications at the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said last school year, the association asked the state to consider moving the M-STEP test window to later in the school year after a large number of snow days cut into instructional time across districts.

"To accommodate more learning opportunities, moving the test forward like this does not achieve that goal," Spadafore said. "And many districts have already set their schedules, and this could be a problem for them."

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