Michigan school chief: Waive reading law and M-STEP

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan's state superintendent of instruction said if state assessments are waived in Michigan after a three-week mandated school closure, the state's third grade reading law should be too.

On Tuesday, state superintendent Michael Rice and the president of the State Board of Education urged U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to grant a nationwide waiver of statewide student assessments.

Rice and state school board president Casandra Ulbrich wrote to DeVos to say that federally mandated state testing should be waived this year in favor of focusing on the more immediate needs of children amid the current coronavirus pandemic that has led to the closure of schools in Michigan and across the country.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing on the fiscal year 2021 budget, on Capitol Hill, in this Feb. 27, 2020, file photo.

Michigan’s annual M-STEP tests are scheduled to begin the week of April 13 and run through May 28. An executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all K-12 schools in Michigan from March 16 through April 5.

Asked if the state should take steps to temporarily waive the reading law, which mandates retaining third-graders who don't pass the statement assessment, Rice said yes, but only if state assessments are not given this school year.

"The state tests are the foundation of the retention portion of the Read By Grade 3 law," Rice told The Detroit News on Tuesday. "If it’s not appropriate to give the state tests this year, and it isn’t, it is certainly not appropriate to implement anything whose foundation is the state tests this year."

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

In January, state education officials moved 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 being retained.

According to two memos obtained by The Detroit News, the Michigan Department of Education "strongly urges" school districts to begin testing third graders on the 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.

Meanwhile, Whitmer backed the call for a national test waiver in a statement Tuesday, saying it is time for DeVos to “do the right thing” on behalf of students.

“When our kids get back to school, our number one priority must be ensuring they have the resources they need to get back on track,” the governor said.

Rice said when students do return to school, the focus should be on tending to children’s immediate needs: physical, socio-emotional and academic.

"In many cases, children will have experienced trauma," Rice said. "In other cases, they will simply need to be reacclimated into their schools. In all cases, students will have missed instruction, and this lost instruction will render any conclusions about test results dubious, especially any comparisons across school years and in light of the pending public health concerns of parents, students, and staff.” 

Ulbrich and Rice told DeVos in the letter that “many children will struggle with the long absence from school. It will take many districts a considerable period of time to resume normal functioning, not to mention refocusing on the instruction of children.”

Rice said any state summative assessment results would not accurately reflect student learning given the tremendous disruption in children’s education and lives during this extraordinary period.

Rice said he also will work with Michigan’s state legislators to waive the requirements in state law to administer the M-STEP tests.

Federal education officials said DeVos last week asked the department's K-12 team to work on broad waiver authority for the states, and it is expected to be ready to be pushed out to education leaders in the coming days.

Education leaders from across the state supported the request, including the executive directors of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, the Michigan Association of School Boards, the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and the Michigan School Business Officials. 

"This unprecedented event has caused our students to be out of school for three-plus weeks — an undesirable, but necessary situation — which will create a need for our students to re-acclimate with school and their usual routines," a joint statement said.

"To ask schools to immediately return to state assessments would be unfair to our students and our educators. Due to the loss of instructional time, any state summative assessment results would not be an accurate reflection of our students’ learning."