Our editorial: Keep high standards for schools

The Detroit News

A new crop of test results released this week demonstrates how far Michigan schools must go to improve the level of education they deliver. This is not news. Public schools here have been falling behind for years. Rather, it underscores how the state must stay the course in high standards — and strive to meet them.

The state also must be transparent with families about how schools are doing, so they have tools to make informed decisions.

While we understand scores from a test taken once a year shouldn’t be the only mark of a school’s or student’s success or failure, it is an important one. It offers school administrators and teachers, as well as parents, a consistent measure by which to gauge progress—or lack thereof.

The state is at a pivotal crossroads on both these measures.

The state Education Department finally has three years of data from the new Michigan Student of Education Progress. The M-STEP is offered in the spring to students in grades 3-8 in math and English. Students are also tested in social students and science, depending on their grade.

For the third year, scores fell in the essential category of third-grade reading. Just 44 percent of third-graders passed the English test, which measures reading, writing, listening and language; in 2015, it was 50 percent.

Education officials have called the results “disappointing.” No kidding. The state now has a new law that should help ensure students aren’t moving to fourth grade without a solid foundation in reading. Not much else matters if children aren’t mastering that skill.

The test did highlight gains in other subjects, but the overall proficiency scores are still low. And achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income households remain high.

The scores should give Michigan educators, parents and residents pause.

Local superintendents have said assessments they give locally offer more helpful feedback. And state Superintendent Brian Whiston has strongly supported moving to a new form of testing, which would likely consist of shorter, computer adaptive tests offered a few times a year. He’s argued this would give teachers and principals more immediate feedback on how students are doing.

Lawmakers also directed Whiston to put out requests for a new test by Oct. 1.

Here’s the problem: If Michigan switches its assessment again now, it will reset the state’s ability to make meaningful accountability decisions with the data, whether using it for teacher evaluations or deciding which schools need state intervention.

“Having honest, reliable, consistent data is the best way to determine where schools are excelling and if more work is needed,” says Brian Gutman with the Education Trust-Midwest. “It would be a mistake to turn back the clock and start all over again.”

Whatever changes Whiston makes, he should retain a version of the annual M-STEP.

The state is also working on its accountability plan with the federal Department of Education—a requirement for Michigan to receive federal funding. Though states have more flexibility from the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act, they must meet requirements. Michigan’s initial plans have received wide criticism from education and business groups; the state is working through revisions.

A glaring shortfall is the accountability system. Currently, it’s a “transparency dashboard” that would likely confuse parents. Gov. Rick Snyder and Whiston wanted an A-F letter grading system, but the State Board of Education had qualms about that, so it got dropped.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should demand that from Michigan. But if she doesn’t, lawmakers should step in.

In the push to improve the state’s schools, it would be a big mistake to backtrack on testing and school grading.