Just half of Michigan third-graders achieved proficiency in English on the state's new M-STEP exam, and newly released data show that more than two-thirds of Metro Detroit districts and charters missed that mark.

Of more than 200 districts and charters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Livingston counties, only 30 percent achieved proficiency rates of 50 percent or higher in third-grade English Language Arts, according to results issued Thursday by the Michigan Department of Education.

The results on the English exam, which tests reading and writing, are troubling but can provide a roadmap for where to go next, education experts say. The ability of students to read by the time they reach third grade is considered a crucial building block for learning in subsequent grades and in other core subjects including math and science.

"These scores — in third-grade reading and throughout other grades and subjects — are part of a healthy process," said Brian R. Gutman, director of public engagement at the Education Trust-Midwest, a think tank in Royal Oak. "We're being honest with ourselves about how we're doing and where greater support is needed for students and teachers to improve learning. Now that we have set a new baseline for measuring student progress, we need to focus on the right priorities and commit to providing better opportunity for all Michigan students."

Gov. Rick Snyder has made improving third-grade literacy a major focus, addressing the issue in his State of the State address earlier this year and including about $28 million in this year's state budget to promote reading proficiency through more screening, instructional time and professional development for staff.

The English proficiency results come from the M-STEP, the state's new standardized test, which replaced the 44-year-old Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Administered for the first time this past spring, the M-STEP results are considered a baseline and state officials say comparisons to previous MEAP scores are unfair.

Students in grades four through eight and 11th grade also were tested in English, along with math. Students in grades four, seven and 11 were tested in science, while students in grades five, eight and 11 were tested in social studies.

Education Trust-Midwest, in its own analysis, noted that there are several areas where students of color and low-income students are lagging behind.

For instance, 1 out of every 3 Hispanic students are proficient in 4th grade reading and writing – which is 14 percentage points lower than the state average; only 9 percent of African American students are proficient in 11th grade math — far below the 28 percent of all 11th grade students.

Meanwhile, results from 8th graders showed that 32 percent of students from low-income families were proficient in reading and writing, and only 17 percent in math.

"These results reinforce the need for strong leadership in Michigan to provide strategic action and investments to help all Michigan students, no matter where they live or who they are," said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest. "Our students need and deserve a world-class education to thrive in the 21st century economy."

Besides the results in third-grade English, overall proficiency rates were equally dismal in other grades and subjects in many Metro Detroit schools. In more than half of the districts and charters in the region, fewer than 50 percent of students achieved proficiency in math and English in grades four, five, six, seven, eight and 11.

Proficiency rates were especially low for some local charter schools and districts.

For example, Joy Preparatory Academy and Hamilton Academy, both Detroit charter schools, had no students proficient in third-grade English.

On the same test, just under 4 percent of third-graders in the state's district for failing schools, the Education Achievement Authority, were proficient in English. For Detroit Public Schools, the state's largest district, 11.6 percent of third-graders achieved proficiency on the English exam.

But Arellano said the news isn't all bad.

"As expected, student scores on the assessment are low across the state, but these scores are not evidence of declining performance by students or schools," Arellano said. "We've increased expectations, to make sure that students are prepared for what comes next – the next grade, careers or college – and are finally measuring those higher expectations. For the first time in a long time, we are being honest about where we are. Now we should use this information to improve teaching and learning in Michigan classrooms."

Thursday's results come nearly two months after the education department released statewide results. At the time, Brian Whiston, state school superintendent, said in a statement that the results were expected to be lower in the more rigorous test.

"While the overall scores on this new test are low, they aren't as low as we first thought they could be," Whiston said then.

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