Editorial: Stagnant test scores must spur more reform

The Detroit News
Ferndale Upper Elementary School students Savanna Taylor (right) and Brianna Davisyoung  complete their classroom assignment at the Oak Park campus on Wednesday September 14, 2017. 
Max Ortiz/The Detroit News 2017

A new crop of statewide test scores again highlights the entrenched challenges facing Michigan schools. While there are some glimmers of progress in the latest scores, the picture overall is stagnant at best.

After years of falling literacy levels among students, the state did make some slight gains on the reading front. That follows a concerted effort and an infusion of new funding to boost early reading. Reforms take time to see results, yet the Legislature should follow this investment and make sure that schools are making the best use of the literacy money.

Especially in high minority and high poverty districts, levels of literacy remain significantly behind their suburban peers. Detroit’s scores are jaw-droppingly low, although scores in the state’s largest district are beginning to tick up and should increase in coming years following a much-needed curriculum overhaul.

But there are plenty of red flags in the 2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, given to students in the spring. The Detroit News reports the following statistics:

  • Just 44.4 percent of third-graders scored proficient or higher on the English language arts test compared with 44.1 the previous year. The test measures reading, writing, listening and language. This is an important predictor of a student’s future success in school. Without the tools of reading and writing by third grade, students are much more likely to fall behind and drop out.
  • Statewide proficiency rates remained below 50 percent in all subjects, ranging from 41.4 percent to 46.5 in English language arts; math proficiency rates were lower, ranging from 32.7 percent to 45.7. The highest statewide score came in 11th-grade social studies at 48.5 percent proficient.
  • Statewide math scores declined in grades 3, 5, 7 and 8, with students in grade 6 showing a slight improvement and students in grade 4 showing no change.
  • Single digits and low double digits remain standard in Detroit. Proficiency for third-grade students at Detroit Public Schools Community District moved to 11.3 percent proficient this year, up from 9.9 percent in 2017. In fourth grade, 11.1 percent were proficient, compared to 10.4 last year. Scores in math at Detroit schools declined in grades 3, 4 and 7. Eighth-grade math scores hit 7.2 percent proficient compared to 6.8 the year before.

The Education Trust-Midwest also found recurring achievement gaps related to race and poverty. Only 27.5 of low-income eighth graders are proficient in English language arts, for example.

State leaders have long known the shortfalls facing public schools here. What’s positive is that the M-STEP is considered a fairly rigorous measure of achievement and the state has kept the same test for enough time now to offer comparative data and to chart progress. That shouldn't change. 

Business groups in Michigan which have made education reform and improvement a priority should take these scores as further incentive to demand better. This kind of involvement in other states has proven invaluable, and Michigan students deserve no less.