Editorial: Give Michigan schools stability with testing

The Detroit News

Michigan’s public schools are under increasing pressure to raise student performance. That’s an important goal. But after just two years of a new state assessment tool, lawmakers and the state’s top education official are looking to switch things up again. Schools can’t meet moving targets.

The Michigan Department of Education scrambled to develop a new standardized test in 2014, after lawmakers scrapped the department’s original plan of using a nationally-developed test — one aligned with Common Core content standards.

The M-STEP test, which replaced the 40-year-old Michigan Educational Assessment Program test, is also a measure of the Common Core, but adjusted to Michigan’s curriculum.

The M-STEP testing window began April 11 and runs through May 20.

This test was sold as a better measure of student performance and a more accurate chart of academic growth, since it’s given in the spring instead of the fall. The more rigorous test was supported by diverse groups such as Education Trust-Midwest and Business Leaders for Michigan, and they still stand by it.

A consistent testing benchmark from year to year offers schools and parents the ability to measure student growth and compare one district with another. And supporters of the M-STEP say this test is finally an accurate portrait of how the state’s students are doing.

Yet some lawmakers are having a charge of heart about the M-STEP and are looking into other options.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, started a conversation about the M-STEP this spring when the appropriations subcommittee he chairs left the $22 million in funding for the test out of the K-12 budget. The full House Appropriations Committee agreed.

Kelly had expected his counterparts in the Senate to do the same, but they didn’t. He thinks there is room for further discussion before final budgets are approved.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston has also signaled he’s open to changing Michigan’s test, but he advocates keeping the M-STEP in place for at least one more school year for some consistency.

In a presentation Whiston gave the House Education Committee and School Aid Subcommittee this week, he said testing is going much more smoothly this year.

The department has made numerous changes to the test, after listening to the concerns of schools. Testing time has been cut in half and the department is giving schools initial score reports within a few days.

The department has also promised schools and parents will receive comprehensive data reports by the start of the next school year.

That didn’t happen last year. The education department didn’t send out those district and building reports until December.

Yet Whiston told the lawmakers he’s advocating future changes, including starting testing in kindergarten rather than third grade. And he indicated he would support switching to a new test that would be given at the beginning and end of the school year — with the possibility of a third test in the middle.

Computer adaptive tests such as one developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association are already used by more than a third of public schools in Michigan. Kelly and others have pointed to that test as one the state could use instead of the M-STEP. The tests are shorter, and they offer immediate results to teachers.

The state should make sure it’s using the best measure to track how students are doing. It’s too soon, however, to toss M-STEP.

“Students and teachers need time and stability to transition to the M-STEP, and improve teaching and learning,” says Brian Gutman, director of public engagement at Education Trust-Midwest.

This debate is far from over. Republicans in the Legislature are still uneasy with the Common Core and any test associated with the standards. They rightly fear giving the federal government more control over education.

“We’re dancing to Washington’s tune,” says Kelly. “What’s important to Michigan?”

These issues are worthy of debate. But schools need consistency with testing benchmarks. For now, the M-STEP should stay.