Fewer than half of third-graders proficient in English

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan educators vowed Tuesday to examine the continued decline of proficiency among third-grade students in the reading portion of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress.

Since 2015, third-grade reading scores have had the largest decline in a subject area in the M-STEP’s three-year history.

The Michigan Department of Education said the percentage of Michigan third-graders passing the English language arts test — which measures reading, writing, listening and language — dropped to 44.1 percent in 2017, compared to 46 percent in 2016 and 50 percent in 2015.

“The English language arts scores are disappointing,” State Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

>>(Find your school's M-STEP scores in our interactive database.)

As a result, the state, as well as individual districts, will be looking into causes and possible solutions to strengthen third-grade reading, which Gov. Rick Snyder has called a “foundational” ability that can predict a student’s longterm opportunity for academic success.

The latest results of statewide testing add another blow to an increasingly dire educational outlook for Michigan. According to analyses of national testing data, Michigan students are performing among the bottom 10 percent of states.

In the last 18 months, the state education department has rolled out programs to improve students’ literacy skills by the end of third grade. However, Disessa said some initiatives haven’t been in place long enough to impact last year’s third-graders.

“We emphasize that schools and districts, with the help of their intermediate school districts (ISDs), should carefully examine their scores and other data to look for paths to improvement,” said Bill Disessa, a spokesman for the state education department, in an email.

One issue, Disessa added, is some districts may be using a local curriculum not fully aligned with the state standards approved by the State Board of Education in 2010.

Reading scores for students in grades 4 and 6 through 8 also decreased compared to 2016 scores. Fifth-graders made a 0.5 percentage point gain in that portion of the test.

The M-STEP assesses students in grades 3-8 in math and English and students in grades 5, 8, and 11 in social studies and grades 4, 7, and 11 in science.

Of the 18 grade-subject combinations tested, 10 showed gains in the number of students proficient or advanced compared to 2016 statewide scores, state education officials said.

“The spring 2017 results show math and social studies scores are continuing to improve, and that is exciting news,” Whiston said.

When compared to 2015 statewide results, students in grades 5, 8 and 11 were more proficient in social studies; grades 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 improved in math; grade 11 in science; and grade 5 in English.

Scores in social studies showed increases in all three tested grades this year, ranging from 2.1 percentage points in grade 8; 2.8 percentage points in grade 5 and 2.9 percentage points in grade 11. That’s after declines in all three of those grades in 2016, state officials said.

Math scores increased in five of the six grades tested in 2017, but proficiency rates ranged from 46.8 percent in third grade to 33.5 percent in eighth grade.

The largest three-year gain on the test was in science for 11th-graders. Their test scores increased 4.2 percentage points from 2015 to 2017, with 33.6 percent testing proficient.

“We keep moving forward on our goal to be a Top 10 education state in 10 years and know that the early work we’re putting into motion will pay positive dividends in the very near future,” Whiston said.

Across Michigan, eleventh-graders saw gains on SAT testing. The average score was 1007.6 in 2017, up from 1000.8 in 2016. The reading and writing portion was up 2.6 points, and math was up 4.1 points.

Meanwhile, superintendents say the M-STEP is only a snapshot of how their districts are doing year to year, and that local assessments given at the district level tell them more about how students are performing.

However, the results are used as part of Michigan’s annual educational dashboard, which uses data to compare Michigan students to students in other states.

Officials with the Education Trust - Midwest — a nonpartisan, education policy, research and advocacy organization — said Michigan has an expanded data set for measuring how well students and schools are performing against Michigan’s high academic standards.

“Michigan has taken the important step of setting high expectations for all of our students and using an honest tool to measure our progress,” said Brian Gutman, director of public engagement for the Education Trust - Midwest.

Disparities persist

Gutman said the results show achievement gaps remain. Statewide proficiency rates in eighth-grade math were about four times greater for white students (39.2 percent) than for African-American students (10.1 percent) and about double the rate for Latino students (19.5 percent).

Proficiency rates for low-income students have also remained extremely low, Gutman said, with 31.8 percent of Michigan’s low-income eighth-graders proficient in English language arts and just 16.9 percent proficient in math in 2017.

“This reinforces the need for Michigan to commit to honest and meaningful accountability for the learning of all Michigan students — which is glaringly missing from Michigan’s new education plan,” he said.

One school district — the now defunct Education Achievement Authority that operated schools in Detroit until it was reabsorbed by the city district in June — reported zero children proficient in fourth-grade science districtwide. One percent were proficient in 2016. In fifth-grade social studies, the proficiency rate among EAA schools was 0.4 percent districtwide this year and in 2016.

Students in Michigan’s largest school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District, increased their scores in eight areas of the test, decreased in two areas and saw no change in three.

Proficiency rates ranged from less than 5 percent in fourth- and seventh-grade science, fifth- and sixth-grade math and fifth-grade social studies to 16.1 percent in eighth-grade English in Detroit.

The district’s biggest gain came in 11th-grade social studies, in which proficiency rose 3.8 percentage points from 12.2 percent proficient in 2016 to 16 percent in 2017.

The number of third-graders who scored proficient was 9.9 percent this year, meaning more than 90 percent of students could not pass the test.

In a statement issued Tuesday, DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti acknowledged “there is a lot of work that needs to be done to improve proficiency rates across the district.”

The district will undergo a curriculum audit this fall in reading and math to see where gaps exist and “to use that analysis to engage teachers on the selection of new curriculum that is highly aligned to the standards” for the 2018-19 school year.

“This will start by better supporting our principals and teachers with comprehensive training on the standards, re-emphasizing phonics at the primary grade levels and implementing data systems to properly identify the academic gaps our students face to provide stronger interventions,” he said.

“In addition, we will engage principals shortly to identify best practices from schools where performance improved to replicate while also problem-solving with schools where performance declined.”

Improvement strategies

Randy Speck, superintendent of Madison District Public Schools, saw double-digit increases in proficiency rates in fifth- and seventh-grade math and in fifth-grade English. The largest jump came in fifth-grade math in which student proficiency increased 14.8 percentage points, moving from 8.6 percent in 2016 to 23.4 percent in 2017.

Speck credits his teachers’ dedication to students for the bump in test scores on the M-STEP.

“We have a relentless urgency around this idea that our kids can learn. Every single one of them,” Speck said. “It is our teachers. It’s their attitudes, and it’s a buy-in belief that every child in this building can learn and can achieve. And that’s really exciting.”

The Oakland County district’s year-round calendar also helps drive increases in test scores, he said. The school population is the among the highest economically challenged population in the county, Speck said.

“We put a plan in place. We look at the data. We do deep data dives. Teachers are making on-the-fly adjustments for kids in their individual learning. Kids are buying in. I think it’s exciting,” he said.

Tung Tran is a fifth-grade math teacher at Madison Elementary School. Tran said getting to know his students is how he determines what gaps they each have in math proficiency. In a recent exercise on the first week of school, he had students pick their two favorite numbers and then tell a story behind their choices.

“It starts in third grade, and it’s building up on the gaps they are missing. We are low-income, and some fall through the cracks. The assessments are constant and daily, and you have to get to know your students,” he said.

In Macomb County, Brian Walmsley, superintendent of Richmond Community Schools, also saw double-digit increases in social studies and third-grade English, as well as some declines in math and science.

Walmsley said a one-on-one technology initiative has put laptops in the hands and homes of all students in grades 3-12 and has changed the way kids are learning.

“So we are looking at the world our students live in and how do we engage them. We have done a lot of professional development. They Skype with university professors,” he said.

The district invested $100,000 in a literacy library for students in grades K-4 and monitors reading proficiency through assessments three times a year.

“We are starting to see that in our scores, and we are headed in the right direction,” he said.

Walmsley said the district has already been looking at changing the math programs in response to decreasing test scores.

“This year, we are launching a new math curriculum at the middle and high school designed and written by teachers. It is what the M-STEP wants them to do: engage and think in abstract ways,” he said.