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Michigan eases measuring stick for third-grade reading ahead of retention rules

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
The Michigan Department of Education announced this week it approved a set of cut scores — selected points on a test's score scale — for third-graders taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, in 2020 that will be used to make decisions for retentions.

Michigan will use a new scoring system to make third-grade retention decisions under the state's controversial reading law that could promote thousands of students who still need additional reading help.

But state education officials believe the new retention guidelines more precisely pinpoint a third-grader's reading ability and better determine whether a child should be held back.

The Michigan Department of Education announced this week it approved a set of cut scores — selected points on a test's score scale — for third-graders taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, in 2020 that will be used to make decisions for retentions.

Only 5% of third-grade students would have been held back under the new scoring system had it been applied to 2018 scores, state officials say. That figure is in dramatic contrast to the 55.6% or 56,850 of Michigan's third-graders who scored less than proficient on English Language Arts portion of the test in 2018.

The new system creates a set of numeric scores to determine whether a child will be flagged for retention in third grade, offered additional supports but not retained, or be promoted to fourth grade without extra support.

The reading law, adopted in 2016, stops third-grade students from moving to the fourth grade — with some exemptions — if they read a grade level behind on the state's English Language Arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

State officials say the decision to retain will not be made using performance level rankings from M-STEP, such as "not proficient" or "partially proficient."

"A performance level of 'not proficient' on the ELA test does not necessarily tell us if the student is a grade level behind in terms of their reading," MDE deputy superintendent Venessa A. Keesler said in a memo.

To establish the cut scores, state education officials worked with groups of educators, technical experts and literacy experts over a six-month period in 2018 to create a "standard-setting process," state officials said.

Based on the cut scores, a student must score 1272 or higher on the ELA assessment to meet the third-grade reading requirements, between 1253 and 1271 to have additional supports recommended but not required and not be retained, or score 1252 or lower to be subject to the state's retention policy.

The cut scores were built by looking at questions on the test, the difficulty of those questions and what questions are appropriate to meet the state benchmark, said Naomi Norman, assistant superintendent for achievement and system support at Washtenaw ISD and a member of the cut score review committee.

"The M-STEP measures only who is at grade level against Michigan standards," Norman said. "But if you are talking about retention, you want to make sure that you are talking about someone who is more than a year behind. I think there is a distinction."

The M-STEP provides a "performance" score on the third-grade reading test. A score of 1,317-1,357 is "advanced." A "proficient" score is 1,300-1,316, a "partially proficient" score is 1,280-1,299 and "not proficient score" is 1,203-1,279.

Keesler said in the memo it's not possible to determine how many questions a student has to get wrong on the M-STEP to be flagged because of the way the assessments are scored.

"The scale score is the information that can be used," Keesler said.

Based on the spring 2018 M-STEP data, state officials said in the memo that about 5% of students — or 5,270 students — would be subject to the retention policy, 17.5% of students would be provided additional support and 77.5% of students would meet the third-grade reading requirement.

Only 777 of the state's 105,399 third-grade students were retained in the 2017-18 school year, according to state data.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she wants to overturn Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law. Michael Rice, who was selected to be Michigan's next state superintendent, has said he does not support retention for the state's third-graders based on tests.

Figuring out where kids are

Kyle Mayer, an assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, said what the third-grade law requires is more complicated than retaining students who are not proficient on the M-STEP.

"What the law states is the only students flagged for potential retention have to be a year or more behind at reading," Mayer said. "That means a third-grader had to read at second grade or lower to be flagged. The M-STEP wasn’t designed to help us determine who was more than a grade level behind."

Just because more than 50% of Michigan third-graders were not proficient on the 2018 test does not mean that same 50% is a year or more behind, Mayer said.

"Many of the kids who are not proficient may be very close to proficient," Mayer said. "When you look at all of those good cause exemptions and the cut score, potentially not a great deal of students will be trained as we thought prior to the law."

In Ottawa County, 1.6% or about 54 of third-grade students would be flagged for retention using 2018 data, Mayer said.

Brian R. Gutman, director of external relations at The Education Trust-Midwest, said the cut scores are providing needed clarity on the law and how it will impact students.

"That has been missing," Gutman said. "This does set a line at the very least and can help parents and families prepare as the law goes into full effect next year."

Allowing 77.5% of kids to be promoted while only 44.4% are considered proficient — based on 2018 M-STEP data — would allow too many students to enter the fourth grade without getting extra support from local school districts, Gutman said.

"We can't take our eyes off the needs for all students, regardless of where they are on literacy," Gutman said. "We need best practices for improving literacy and a plan for getting these students from where they are and where they need to be."

Educators say the vast majority of children who will be identified for potential retention live in poverty. 

David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, said on Friday the new cut scores still cannot determine with certainty who is reading a full grade level below.

"If these lawmakers really cared about reading, they would do things that improve reading," Crim said. "It's providing the resources to help kids. Holding a kid back does nothing to help their proficiency."

To improve reading, schools need smaller class sizes in grades K-3, more literacy coaches and interventionists, wrap-around services, such as adult mentors reading to kids, and in some cases, food and health care.

"But that costs money," Crim said.

Between 2014 and 2017, the state has invested more than $76 million in early literacy programs and services by adding instructional time and allowing districts to hire literacy coaches. The Michigan Department of Education used money to develop a statewide literacy leadership and learning network for families, coaches, educators and administrators as well as update educator preparation standards.

'Still an urgency'

Exemptions in the retention law include students with special education accommodations, students with less than three years of instruction in English language learning programs, students who show grade-level proficiency through a portfolio of work and students who perform at grade level on a state-approved alternative assessment.

Once a student is flagged for retention, the law requires that he or she be assigned to a highly effective teacher, highest rated third-grade teacher or a reading specialist; be provided evidence-based reading programs with proven results; receive daily small group or 1-to-1 reading intervention; receive ongoing progress monitoring and receive supplemental reading instruction.

Amanda Price, a former state representative who chaired the House Education Committee, is current chairwoman of the governor's PreK-12 Literacy Commission and participated in a workgroup on the cut scores. She said she views the new scores two ways.

"What they are trying to highlight (are) those kiddos more than a grade level behind," Price said. "You can now zoom in on those kids now and get them help. That's great."

But the other side, Price said, is the new cut scores "somewhat masks the reality" that there are a lot of kids who need a lot of improvement in literacy.

"I am concerned with so few kids being ID'd as retained that someone will take it as 'it's only a few thousand more than are already retained,'" Price said. "It has to be taken seriously. That’s why I'm concerned about this low number. There still is an urgency."