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Van Buren school’s M-STEP scores drop after test probe

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Scores on the state’s M-STEP standardized exam dropped sharply this year at a Van Buren Township district school where an investigation found evidence of cheating on last year’s test.

Results of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress released Tuesday show proficiency rates at Savage Elementary School in Belleville dropped by double-digit percentages in four of the five grade-level subjects tested at the school.

Proficiency rates fell from 79.3 percent to 51.3 percent in third-grade reading (down 28 percentage points), from 91.4 percent to 59.2 percent in third-grade math (down 32.1 percentage points), from 77.1 percent to 63.8 percent in fourth-grade English (down 13.3 percentage points), from 89.6 percent to 62.6 percent in fourth-grade math (down 27 percentage points) and from 20.8 percent to 16.2 percent in fourth-grade science (down 4.6 percentage points).

“That is not usual for scores to drop to the degree we’re seeing at that school,” said Jan Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Education.

State officials invalidated the 2015 M-STEP scores at Savage after an investigation into testing procedures at the school — only the third time in 12 years that had been done on such an assessment.

The Van Buren Public Schools acknowledged inappropriate training, use of prohibited coaching techniques and other issues surrounding the test, administered in spring 2015.

Several district employees were placed on administrative leave in the wake of the scandal, which came to light in January 2016, and Superintendent Michael Van Tassel was replaced a month later.

Van Buren Superintendent Pete Kudlak, who took office in July, told The Detroit News in a phone interview he could not comment on the cheating scandal and how it relates to this year’s test scores “because of a current lawsuit.”

But he addressed the low test scores and praised the district’s teachers.

“It is something we have to check out,” he said. “I was kind of disappointed that all our buildings were lower than expected. The reading scores in the elementary schools were lower than we want them to be. But we are using a new reading program we purchased called Journeys, and hopefully that will increase scores so students can do better on M-STEP.

“We have wonderful teachers here and we want to listen to them about what they need in the classrooms.”

Van Buren school officials contacted the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Standards and Assessment last year about the “unusually high” marks, Ellis said in January.

State officials noted issues in the test results for third- and fourth-graders in math and English, according to a Dec. 2 letter from the department to the district.

An analysis showed Savage students had “a significantly higher percentage of students meeting proficiency (Levels 3 or 4) than the three other elementary schools in the Van Buren Public Schools and compared to the statewide average,” test security specialist Jason Kolb wrote.

A law firm’s investigative report said “two staff members admitted to some level of assistance during the test” and students suggested they were walked through problems.

Beside invalidating last year’s test results, state officials added oversight of this year’s exam at the school.

“As a result of last year’s investigation, we did agree to monitor them this year, and we did have monitors there,” Ellis said. “Everything went well from a testing standpoint.”