Editorial: To fix Michigan's schools, first fix tests

The Detroit News
A group of teachers from Detroit Public Schools Community District attends training on the district’s new curriculum at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit on July 17, 2018.

Michigan’s decision not to release for another two years the scores of the science test taken last spring means schools, parents and children are operating in the dark on how well students are learning. The state’s long road to getting an effective assessment of student skills in place helps explain why its kids rest near the bottom nationally in education achievement.

Still, it’s probably the right decision to withhold the results. The test taken in April and May by fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders was a sample exam aimed at helping education officials fine-tune the final product, and much of the territory covered was not included in the science curriculum taught at schools. The scores likely would have given a skewed picture of how kids are performing.

Some educators, though, want the the Education Department to share individual scores with students and parents, to give them an idea of where each child might need help.

That’s a reasonable approach, given the long delay in releasing group scores. Results of reading, math and social studies tests will be made public as scheduled.

The Michigan Student Test of Education Progress (M-STEP) has been in place three years. It replaced the Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) and was designed to better align testing with curriculum.

But it has significant problems, beyond this drawn-out process for getting a permanent test in place.

For one thing, some of the tests aren’t given every year to every student. Science and social studies are tested only in fifth, seventh and eighth grades. 

That’s not often enough for schools to respond to any problems identified by the tests.

The tests are also taken in April and May, a month or more before the end of the school year, but they cover a full year’s curriculum, meaning some of the topics on the test haven’t been discussed yet in the classroom.

While the Education Department has been working to get the results of the tests back earlier, they have in the past arrived too late in the school year for teachers to adjust instruction to address trouble spots. 

Writing is only peripherally tested. Students do not have to answer essay questions, a long-established measure of writing skills. 

Starting next year, instead of M-STEP all eighth-graders will take the PSAT, a preliminary to the SAT college entrance exam.

The Detroit Regional Chamber, Grand Rapids Chamber and Business Leaders for Michigan sent a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder, legislative leaders and the state Board of Education opposing the switch, saying it will cause disruptions for teachers and students and produce less reliable data for parents and policymakers. They also say the PSAT focuses too little on critical thinking, problem solving skills and writing. 

Michigan does not have an assessment program in place to allow it to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its schools and teachers, or of the achievement of it students. More importantly, the tests don’t lend themselves to helping schools fix what’s wrong. 

Former School Superintendent Brian Whiston, before he passed away, was pushing to replace M-STEP with yet another test that he said would assess learning in real time.

That would have pushed off an accurate evaluation of student progress for another three to five years. Michigan can’t afford that. 

The only choice it has is to make the M-STEP work. Education officials should turn it into a tool that enables schools to quickly see where they are falling short and encourages them to make a nimble response.