Opinion: Michigan should offer more testing choices

Eric Coykendall

The Michigan Department of Education’s decision to withhold 2018 M-STEP science results points to larger problems with Michigan’s current framework for school accountability—and ultimately with the federal model of accountability established under the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) and still kept largely intact under the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015).

The current accountability framework assumes that top-down reform will produce bottom-up results. We ask teachers, schools and school districts to be innovative, to light the spark of our children’s imaginations, and to teach students to be critical thinkers. Yet we then measure their success on lock-step conformance to a common set of multiple-choice questions, such as the M-STEP exams.

The problem is particularly jarring in our current school choice climate. School choice is meant to foster innovation in curriculum and instruction, and allow parents the freedom to choose their child’s school. But in practice, all schools are coerced to make the same curricular choices in order to meet state testing demands.

The M-STEP thereby serves as a back-door route to mandating curriculum—especially in content-heavy disciplines like science and history, and especially for underserved children who often score lower on standardized tests. Do you want to take valuable class time to explain the difference between a sole-proprietorship, a partnership, and a corporation to your 5th grade students? If not, too bad—that content is covered by the 5th grade M-STEP.

The solution to our accountability problem isn’t to double down on the M-STEP test or to eliminate it in favor of another generic alternative. The solution is to allow schools and local school districts to choose from a wider offering of proven tests.

The idea is hardly revolutionary. Most private schools and many charter and traditional public schools already take advantage of a wide variety of independent assessment offerings—like the Iowa Assessments or the Northwest Evaluation Association’s MAP Tests. Private schools have long needed independent tests to measure student progress, evaluate themselves, and prove school effectiveness to parents and accreditors.

Charter and traditional public schools often opt to take these exams in addition to the state-based assessments because they provide important information that state-based exams might lack—like paper/pencil options, computer-adaptive testing, or measurements at two or more points during a given school year. And the results from these exams are usually available within a few short days or weeks, a stark contrast to the M-STEP and most other state-based exams.

The state of Arizona recently allowed its public schools to choose from a menu of testing options. If Michigan and other states adopted this policy, then the increased market might even offer a greater number of independent assessments that are better tailored to local curricular and instructional choices.

Coykendall writes: "The solution is to allow schools and local school districts to choose from a wider offering of proven tests."

A move of this sort would save state money, allow us to more easily compare the performance of students around the country, and provide the kind of local control that is necessary for bottom-up education reform.

Michigan has long been a leader in school choice, but the long-term success of school choice, both for schools and for student outcomes, is dependent upon us leading the way in “testing choice.”

Eric Coykendall is associate director for the Barney Charter School Initiative of Hillsdale College.