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The Michigan Department of Education took its time releasing comprehensive testing data from this spring, but at least school districts now have a benchmark to judge future test results. Next year, the department must make sure it releases testing scores in a more timely manner if they are to be useful in the classroom.

The MDE released individual student data earlier in the fall, but schools just last week received building and district-wide data. That information became public this week. And parents are still waiting on the individual student reports they’re supposed to get from their child’s school district each year.

This was the first year the M-STEP test was given to students across the state, and it’s widely thought to be a much better assessment than the four-decade old Michigan Educational Assessment Program test it replaced this year.

So Michigan is on a positive trajectory. The new test is a more rigorous and accurate assessment of how students are doing; plus it’s a reflection of Common Core teaching methods in this state — and most other states around the country.

Given this is a brand new assessment, this year’s test results aren’t comparable to previous test results. But these scores will set the benchmark for comparison in years to come.

In addition, the Legislature threw the Education Department a curve ball last year when it told officials they’d have to design a test specific to Michigan when the department had advocated for using a nationally designed standardized test.

Lawmakers created much more work for the MDE, and that quick turnaround also contributed to the delay this year of test results.

While the postponement is understandable this year — although still much later than education experts anticipated — it would be completely unacceptable next year if schools and parents don’t have results in hand in a much more timely fashion.

So the department will have to ensure it has the ability to turn that information around much faster in 2016.

Teachers depend on the data to know how their students are doing and what they need to do to focus on problem areas. Parents rely on the data to be able to compare how their child’s school is doing when matched with others around the state, as well as better understand how their child is doing in school.

The MDE has already said this year’s data won’t be used to rank schools in any formal way — such as the annual top-to-bottom ranking. Also, teachers won’t be graded based on the testing data in their evaluations, as they will be in future years.

This year’s results indicate schools have a tough job in store next year and in coming school years.

For instance, only half of Michigan third-graders achieved proficiency in English on the exam, which is an important benchmark for young schoolchildren. And just 9 percent of African-American students are proficient in 11th grade math, compared to 28 percent of all 11th grade students, according to the Education Trust-Midwest.

“As expected, student scores on the assessment are low across the state, but these scores are not evidence of declining performance by students or schools,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, in a statement. “We’ve increased expectations, to make sure that students are prepared for what comes next — the next grade, careers or college — and are finally measuring those higher expectations. Now we should use this information to improve teaching and learning in Michigan classrooms.”

This year’s test results set a benchmark so that schools know how to improve instruction going forward. But the education department also must get schools that information much faster next year.

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