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After years firmly entrenched as the worst urban school system in the country, Detroit Public Schools Community District is finally making some upward movement. New statewide test scores highlight that reforms are starting to show results, but much more work is necessary. 

For the first time in the five-year history of the annual Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress test (M-STEP), students in the troubled school district showed improvement in reading and math scores in all grades tested.

That should be an encouragement to Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is entering his third year with the district. Major curriculum overhauls, additional teacher and principal training and other classroom reforms are behind the improvement. 

More: Detroit students improve reading, math scores across all tested grades

More: More than half of Michigan third graders fail in reading

District students showed more growth than state averages in reading in grades 4-7, with proficiency rates increasing from 1.4-1.6 percentage points; state rates were between a decline of 0.7 percentage points to an increase of 0.8 percentage points. 

That’s good news for Vitti and district students, but it should also be noted that while Michigan’s scores across the board are lackluster, Detroit students have the furthest to go.

“I’m being very clear, we are not getting on top of the mountain and saying we’ve arrived,” Vitti says. “But we have demonstrated improvement that’s significant and across the board, and signals this can be done. Now it’s about scaling that and honing in on what we’ve already implemented.”

That’s a good goal, and we hope results start showing even more marked improvement. Vitti is confident that double digit growth is possible in coming years. 

Proficiency rates remain far below state averages. For instance, in third grade reading, which is seen as a pivotal learning benchmark, only 11.9% of DPSCD students passed the test — 45.1% of students statewide did. 

In third grade math, 16% of district students passed, compared with 46.7% across the state.

Some schools within the district saw more pronounced growth — at four schools, students showed double-digit proficiency increases in reading, and eight schools showed similar growth in math. 

The district should take a close look at what proved so effective in those schools and model it elsewhere. 

It’s also worth highlighting that charter schools in Detroit are consistently outpacing their district counterparts. The Education Trust-Midwest examined test data for low-income students in the city and found that third graders in charter schools scored at nearly 20% proficient in reading — nearly 9 percentage points higher than DPSCD schools. The statewide proficiency average for low-income students is 31.3%.

Similarly, an analysis of SAT scores from the Michigan Association of Public School Academies found that the 12 highest-scoring open enrollment high schools in Detroit are charter schools. 

Charters are much maligned for their performance, so this data offers valuable perspective.

All schools in Detroit must do better to serve their students, but the upward trajectory in test scores is a hopeful sign.

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