Michigan test scores lag nationally despite increase

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan improved its national rankings in all four areas of last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, yet its scores remained below national averages for the rigorous exam that is given every two years to a sample of students in each state.

Michigan students made marginal gains on the benchmark test from 2015 to 2017 in three of out of four subject areas after seeing test scores decline across the board from 2013 to 2015.

Michigan students made marginal gains on the benchmark test from 2015 to 2017 in three of out of four subject areas after seeing test scores decline across the board from 2013 to 2015.

Michigan students made small gains in fourth-grade reading and in eighth-grade reading and math, but those scores remain below the national average, according to the latest results from the Nation’s Report Card released Tuesday. There was no change in fourth-grade reading scores from 2015 to 2017. The state did improve its rankings in all four categories compared to other states.

For a fifth straight time, Detroit students scored the lowest among big-city districts in math and reading.

Detroit students who took the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment in 2017 increased the average score in eighth-grade math to 246, which is well below the national average of 282. But scores for fourth-grade reading and math, as well as eight-grade math, dropped and remained below the national average.

Some education experts said Michigan’s ranking may have improved, but it is mostly due to other states doing worse.

“Michigan student achievement is well below top 10 education states, such as Massachusetts, and the national average,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest.

“Where top-performing states are seeing real gains over the last 14 years, Michigan has remained relatively flat. ... Michigan needs the policies, practices and focus that has propelled top performing and top improving states forward.”

The average math score of Michigan’s eighth-grade students rose two points to 280 out of 500, compared with the national average score of 282. The average state score did not significantly change from 278 in 2015 and 280 in 2013.

About 31 percent of Michigan eighth-graders performed at or about the “proficient level” on the NAEP math exam in 2017. Those results were not significantly different from the 29 percent found in 2015 and the 30 percent recorded in 2013.

The state’s ranking in fourth-grade reading moved from No. 41 in 2015 to 35th in 2017, according a Detroit News analysis of the data. Its ranking in eighth-grade math went from No. 38 in 2015 to 33rd in 2017.

Michigan’s fourth-grade math ranking improved slightly from 42nd to 38th, while eighth-grade reading rose one spot from 31st to 30th.

‘Stick with it’

Michigan Department of Education officials said the state is not where it needs to be on educational achievement.

“These tests were given in 2017 when we were one year into our efforts to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years,” Education Department spokesman Martin Ackley said. “There is a Top 10 in 10 plan, we need to stick with it, and give our students and educators the opportunity to keep improving.”

But over the long term, Michigan has been on a slow decline compared with other states where students are realizing higher academic achievements, experts said.

The state’s average scale scores haven’t changed significantly in the last two years, said Sarah Lenhoff, an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Wayne State University’s College of Education.

Although other states have seen scores decline, “I don’t think that means we are improving. It could mean other states are not doing well either,” Lenhoff said.

“When we look at long-term trends Michigan’s rank has fallen pretty sharply compared to the rest of the country. Other states have been improving while Michigan has not.”

NAEP assessments include reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and other subjects. The tests have been conducted periodically since 1969.

The exam is used to judge whether students are achieving at basic, proficient or advanced levels. Students who score below basic lack the fundamental skills to succeed.

NAEP tests are given to a “representative sample” of students in all states and 27 urban districts, including Detroit, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the test. In 2015, students were tested in 21 urban districts.

Last year, the NAEP began administering digitally based assessments for mathematics, reading, and writing. Students used tablets and Surface Pro computers, test officials said. Additional subjects will be administered digitally this year and in 2019.

‘In a really bad spot’

Lenhoff said students in Detroit took the assessment in early 2017, just as the newly elected Board of Education took office and several months after the district’s new superintendent Nikolai Vitti took office in May 2017, replacing a state-appointed emergency manager.

“Detroit is in a really bad spot compared to the rest of the country. Not just last but significant behind the large city average,” she said.

Education experts equate 10 points on the NAEP with a year of learning, Lenoff said. Based on Detroit’s scores, it is years behind in learning compared to other large cities that took the test.

One bright spot for Detroit: Vitti’s former district in Duval County, Florida, which serves a large number of low-income students like Detroit, made significant gains on the test, she said.

“If the superintendent has any influence, that’s not a bad sign,” Lenhoff said.

Vitti said NAEP scores are not a reflection of his students’ talent or potential.

“Instead, they are indicative of a school system that has not implemented best practices regarding curriculum, instruction, academic intervention, and school improvement for over a decade. Our students, parents, teachers, and principals are ready to embrace change for improvement,” Vitti said.

This year the district has focused on rebuilding its infrastructure using the same strategies that led to some of the highest performance among large urban school districts in Duval, Miami-Dade, and Florida in general, Vitti said.

“This includes a focus on training teachers and leaders on the Common Core standards, implementing data systems to monitor student performance and provide intervention, and curriculum that is aligned to the standards. We simply need time and space to build capacity and improvement will be seen by 2020’s administration of NAEP,” he said.