Michigan's M-STEP scores show dramatic declines during pandemic year

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The first statewide glimpse at student achievement since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning shows state assessment scores dropped in math and social studies for all grades tested, while reading scores for older students improved slightly.

Data released Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Education provides the first snapshot of educational progress through standardized tests in two years. The results show the steep climb Michigan has ahead to recover from pandemic-induced learning loss and years of low performances on tests in math, reading, social studies and science.

► Data:See how your school, district did in 2021 M-STEP, SAT testing

However, state education experts urge caution when comparing test scores with prior years because many students were locked into remote-only learning during the last school year. 

Many families refused to send their children, who had been learning virtually, into a school building to take the test as COVID-19 outbreaks continued across the state. Officials say there was increased anxiety among students who had been isolated for 14 months prior to the May tests. Fewer than 75% of students who were eligible for the tests took them.

According to the 2021 results of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, known as M-STEP, math scores dropped for every grade tested, third through eighth and 11th grade.

► In sixth-grade math, 28.6% of students tested proficient or above, compared with 35.1% in 2019, the last time Michigan students took the test.

► In third-grade math, 42.3% of students tested proficient, compared with 46.7% in 2019.

► In third-grade reading, 42.8% of third-graders passed the English language arts test, compared with 45.1% two years earlier. 

► The percentages of eighth- and 11th-grade students who scored proficient or above on the reading and writing test improved over 2019, from 61.9% to 63.6%  and from 55.3% to 56.6%, respectively.

► In fifth-grade social studies, 15.6% of students tested proficient, compared with 17.4% in 2019.

This is the first set of data on Michigan students since 2019 after federal officials canceled statewide assessments in spring 2020.

Kid-specific instruction

Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, said schools have a lot of data to review this fall as students return.

“What I am really hoping is schools take a really hard look at these data and provide very differentiated instruction for each kid based on what their clear needs are,” Strunk said. "This is going to be a critical need for districts to be collecting data on these kids in lots of different ways to most efficiently teach children.

“It’s hard to teach a class of 22. It’s even harder now. Every kid will come into school at a different place.”

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools in Oakland County, said  Tuesday he views the M-STEP results in his district as another filter to look at how students performed academically last year.

Matthews said he also reviews local benchmark data — tests given by teachers to K-8 students in math and reading in the classroom at several points during the year. It helps to gauge student progress and needs, he said.

"Right now, it's very similar," Matthews said of results from both the state and local tests. "It is suggesting to us that last year was not a lost year. Students learned. They will be ready for the school year."

While half of Novi's students were in virtual learning last year, Matthews said 60% to 80% participated in the standardized tests.

Still, he views the MSTEP as just one data point.

"It's certainly not the most important one. It helps us create a picture of who your student is and helps us move your students forward," Matthews said.

M-STEP vs. other tests

Mark Blaszkowski, superintendent of Roseville Community Schools in Macomb County, said because students did not test in 2020, there is not enough data to make comparisons.

“If we want to rate districts with incomplete data, that scares me,” Blaszkowski said.

Blaszkowski also said the M-STEP is one test on one day, which could be a bad day for a student.

“M-STEP is never as good as benchmark testing data — that is done three times a year. It gives us an indication if the student is on track for the year," he said.

State Superintendent Michael Rice said despite the efforts of educators, support staff, school leaders, parents and students, the disruption of the pandemic inevitably resulted in unfinished learning for many children.

"Results from the state summative assessments and the local benchmark assessments show that some students were able to make relatively normal gains, while many others will be working with their teachers to accelerate their learning to catch up to where they otherwise would have been in the absence of the pandemic," Rice said. "In Michigan and across the country, we have our work cut out for us.” 

Participation rates drop

While fewer than 75% of students took the assessment, some subjects had participation rates as low as 50%. Tests had to be given in person inside schools and districts were required to tell parents taking the test was optional. Students who were in remote learning at home were not required to take the test.

For example, 375 third-grade students took the M-STEP math test at the state's largest school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District, this spring compared with 3,931 students in 2019 — less than 10%. A majority of students at in the Detroit district remained in remote learning the entire school year.

Rice said "precise comparisons" with any previous years’ scores would be 

difficult because students did not take the M-STEP in the 2019-20 school year, and the 

percentages of students who took the ELA and math M-STEP tests this past school year ranged by grade and subject from 64% to 72%. 

"The 2020-21 school year was such an uneven year with high health risks for 

students and staff, inconsistent technology and variations in teaching and learning 

across the state," Rice said.

Michigan students took state assessments this past spring, against the recommendation of Rice, who said the test should be canceled for a second consecutive year because COVID-19 disrupted the education of Michigan’s 1.5 million students, many of whom learned exclusively online.

State education officials said students who took the state assessments were more likely to be from districts that offered in-person or hybrid learning and less likely to be students of color, economically disadvantaged students or English learners.

"Districts are encouraged to dig into their data at the school and district levels to better understand and address gaps," Rice said.

State education officials have said caution should be used when interpreting the test scores. "The COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges to instruction during the 2020-21 school year," state officials said in a department newsletter.

"As a result, the data from the Spring 2021 M-STEP assessments should be used with caution and in combination with other local assessment data (including benchmark assessment data) to confirm and interpret the results of individual students."

Third-grade retention

Results of the test are still being used to flag third-grade students for retention, although many superintendents said they would not be retaining students this year. 

According to the state education department, 3,661 third-graders across the state were flagged for retention because of low reading scores. Only 71.2% of third-grade students took the state reading assessment this year, and 4.8% of those tested were identified as being eligible for retention.

According to the state's school data website, 490 third-graders were retained.

In 2019, results from the state's annual literacy exam were bleak: Nearly 55% of third-grade students failed the test with only a slight improvement in scores statewide.

According to 2019 results, 54.9% of third-graders — or 55,336 students — scored less than proficient on the English language arts test. That compared with 55.6% in 2018.

Education advocates said the data demonstrates what national research predicted: Michigan’s students have experienced significant unfinished learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"National research also suggests that students who were underserved for decades in our country and state were also the hardest hit during the pandemic, exacerbating the vast inequities in learning and in our public schools," said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest.

Arellano said districts must urgently address unmet learning needs, including by focusing federal and state funding on students’ educational recovery to ensure all students have real opportunity to not only catch up but to accelerate their learning.

"Such strategies should be based on research and what we know works, such as targeted intensive tutoring, expanded learning time and investments in building strong relationships to provide a foundation for student engagement, belonging and deep learning," she said.

MDE officials said they used federal emergency school funds to expand learning opportunities over the summer and are adding more literacy and math support. They also are expanding social and emotional learning and children’s mental health  support  with additional funding to hire more school counselors, social workers, psychologists  and nurses.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's 2020 school closure order had a disastrous impact, argued Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter school group.

"Gov. Whitmer ignored the science, the pediatricians and the experts, locking students out of their classrooms for months at a time, and today’s test results prove she made a disastrous call,” DeShone said. "Taxpayers spent an extra $6 billion for schools last year during the pandemic, but Gov. Whitmer and the public school bureaucracy left the students behind."

Benchmark data released

During the 2020-21 school year, K-8 students also were evaluated using local benchmark assessments by their teachers. These local tests were given once in the fall and spring in math and reading. 

In a separate report produced by MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative and released on Tuesday, researchers said across all subjects and grades Michigan students appeared to make less than normal progress toward learning goals based on results from the local tests.

Learning did occur over the school year, but the rate of learning appeared to be slower than in a typical pre-pandemic school year, EPIC researchers said.

Strunk said these tests clearly found that students across the state missed critical opportunities to learn during the 2020-21 school year. 

"As predicted, relatively high proportions of students performed significantly behind grade level on benchmark assessments that measure students’ progress in English language arts and math,” Strunk said. "This is particularly true in mathematics."

The report also found that students who participated in benchmark assessments in both the fall and spring are more likely to be white and less likely to be economically disadvantaged or eligible for special education or English learner services, compared with the overall population of K-8 students in Michigan.

"Recent studies consistently show larger, negative impacts of the pandemic on student achievement and achievement growth for the same student groups that are underrepresented amongst Michigan student test-takers," Strunk said.