Opinion: Switching tests could harm students

Eileen Weiser
A fifth grade class takes a math test at Madison Heights elementary school, in Madison Heights, August 29, 2018.

Michigan is numbed by a decade of declining K-12 student achievement. Even though our spending is above the U.S. average, our students consistently rank near the bottom in achievement.

Educators argue schools can’t improve without more money. That doesn’t explain why our wealthy suburban white and African American fourth grade students scored 49th in reading on last year’s Nation’s Report Card.

The answer lies in what we teach and how we do it. Today’s students need new skills to thrive in a rapidly-changing world. Michiganians know that when a type of employment ends, workers must be able to learn new careers or risk everything.

Our college- and career-ready standards move students past just memorizing information toward mastering critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. These skills are increasingly important for today’s careers, and for the challenges our children will face as citizens, parents and workers in their lifetimes.  

Students haven’t lost their capacity to learn, and our dedicated educators work hard to raise student outcomes. The problem is the system. It’s extremely difficult to teach 21st century skills with yesterday’s teaching methods. Improving school instructional methods requires time, knowledge, leadership, commitment and courage.

When students aren’t succeeding, educators choose one of two paths. They can redesign instruction around how students learn best; or they can keep what isn’t working now and change the tests. Accidentally, Michigan is stumbling down the second path. Its “assessment system” has newly-apparent gaps that will move children away from lifelong learning skills.

This spring, Michigan Department of Education formally announced that M-STEP8, our state eighth grade test, had been dropped for another one, the PSAT8, without using Michigan’s required transparent bidding process to award the contract. Worse, a 2016 Michigan educator study summary reported that PSAT8 matches only 52 percent of our eighth grade standards despite a state law requiring alignment. 

New 2015 federal regulations required states to submit proposals for increasing their students’ outcomes. All states must have a statewide assessment in place to comply with the federal law, yet Michigan didn’t include its assessment plan for review.

State elementary and middle school tests have been shortened, eliminating performance tasks that measured problem solving. Short writing passages that also measure critical thinking and communication skills were kept only for fifth and eighth grades. Parents can rightfully complain about testing taking away from instructional time, but local school boards choose their own assessments that far exceed state testing time. 

With both state and district testing moving away from assessing critical thinking and problem solving, political pressure will mount to remove them from the state standards. Schools teach what’s tested. 

The U.S. Department of Education will audit Michigan’s assessment system next spring. These concerns will trigger a federal peer panel review that’s unlikely to approve our plan. If that happens we’ll have to change assessments again, causing unfair whiplash to our teachers and schools who have been subjected to so much change already.

Michigan is now the only state in federal intervention for K-12 special education; 29 percent of our vulnerable students drop out. Michigan’s state results for fourth and eighth grade writing on The Nation’s Report Card will be released soon. It’s unlikely that Michigan’s student achievement will support reduced writing instruction and assessment. We must move ahead of the K-12 best practice curve instead of dragging behind. If Michigan school performance doesn’t improve, our economy will suffer as businesses relocate where they can hire better-educated graduates.     

Michigan needs to reverse course on administering PSAT8 this year. The state Education Department should cancel the contract based on the lack of alignment and transparency, and administer M-STEP 8 next spring instead while there’s still time to make the change. 

The department should use the state procurement system to identify the most appropriate eighth grade test for spring 2020 based on what’s best for Michigan’s students and teachers.

The Legislature should consider which K-12 academic content is essential for assessment in grades 3-8, and modify the state assessment time restrictions if needed to do right by children and educators rather than waiting for federal intervention again.

Please email or call your local school administrator, your state legislators and the Michigan Department of Education to request they hit the PSAT8 pause button and do the right thing for Michigan’s children. Time is of the essence.

Eileen Weiser is a member of the Michigan State Board of Education.