Michigan students won't have to take M-STEP, other assessments

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan students will not have to take the M-STEP and other state-mandated assessments after U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced Friday students impacted by school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic can bypass standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year.

The federal education department will grant a waiver to any state that is unable to assess its students due to the ongoing national emergency, providing relief from federally mandated testing requirements for this school year. Michigan requested a waiver on Tuesday.

Betsy DeVos

"Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn," DeVos said in a statement.

"Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time."

Michigan summative assessments are required under the Michigan State School Aid Act and the Federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA. States need federal waivers to skip the tests.

During a press briefing on Friday, President Donald Trump said the Department of Education would no longer enforce standardized testing requirements for students for the current school year.

"I think probably a lot of the students will be extremely happy," Trump said. "Some, probably not."

Peter Spadafore, a spokesman for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said his organization is grateful the U.S. Department of Education is taking this step.

"It certainly alleviates some of the pressures weighing on the minds of district leaders who already have so many difficult challenges in front of them," Spadafore said. "This will have ramifications on certain state issues like accountability and educator evaluations, so we now must look to the legislature to take action on amending state laws to recognize a changed landscape."

The decision by MDE comes as state education officials announced Friday that any online learning done at home during Michigan's statewide K-12 shutdown will not be counted as instructional time.

Michigan's state superintendent of instruction has 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 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.

Michigan’s annual M-STEP tests were 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.

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.” 

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.