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Tough new state exam stumps Michigan students

Publication date: Oct 27, 2015

by Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press

Most of the students who took the state’s tough new exam in math and English language arts failed it — a stark reminder of just how far Michigan students need to go to meet rigorous new standards.

The state released results Tuesday from the MEAP replacement exam — known as the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress — that was taken for the first time in the spring.

Fifty percent of third-graders passed the English language arts exam — the best result among the grades. Elsewhere, the results ranged from 45% proficient for sixth-graders to 49% proficient for fifth- and 11th-graders.

In math, results ranged from 28% of 11th-graders passing to 49% of third-graders passing. 

The poor performance on the new exam was expected. After all, it was based on the tough new Common Core State Standards, a set of expectations in English language arts and math of what students should know in order to be ready for college or careers. The exam required students to do far more than just fill in multiple choice bubbles.

“We obviously have some strides to make,” said Wendy Zdeb-Roper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. “But … I think we’re going to do better.”

Judy Pritchett, chief academic officer for the Macomb Intermediate School District, said the results were “not as low as I would have expected.”

Her comments echoed statements from other officials, but the results paint an urgent picture for state efforts to improve academic achievement. Michigan residents are used to seeing higher proficiency rates for students.

“We think this helps give us an accurate and real picture of where Michigan students are and where they need to go to be a top-performing state in the next 10 years,” said Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent at the Michigan Department of Education.

The standards didn’t change for science and social studies, but those results also were cause for concern. Just 12% of the fourth-graders who took the science test passed it. And only 22% of the fifth-graders who took the social studies exam passed it. The MDE has proposed more rigorous standards for  those subjects, too.

Because the M-STEP is new, the results can’t be compared to results from the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the 44-year-old exam that was retired in 2013. A key reason? The MEAP tested kids at the beginning of the school year on material they learned the previous year, while M-STEP tests students in the spring, on material they learned during the school year.

But it starts a new trend as students try to reach state expectations that by 2025 require 85% of Michigan students to be proficient in English language arts and math.

“We fully expect Michigan students to meet the raised bar we’ve set and jump over it in the future. We’ve seen it in the past,” Keesler said.

Also Tuesday, the state released results for the ACT exam high school juniors took in March. The average composite score was 19.9, out of a top score of 36. The good news? That’s up from the previous year, when the composite score was 19.8. But it’s the last year the ACT will be part of high school exam. Next year it will be replaced with the SAT.

The 19.9 composite score is lower than the 20.2 score MDE initially reported. The higher number had been incorrectly inserted in a chart the department distributed to reporters.

Tuesday’s release of results was limited, with only statewide results for all students provided. What’s not included in the release: school and district level results as well as demographic results showing how poor, minority, special education and limited English-speaking students did on the test.

MDE officials say those results will be out at a later date.

Test scores have been used to make high stakes decisions for schools. But all that’s on hold for the next few years until the state has two years of data from a stable assessment. That means no publication of a list that ranks schools from top to bottom. It also means no identification of the bottom 5% of schools in the state.

In other states that debuted exams this year based on Common Core, there was a similar drop in the percentage of students considered proficient.

“This is a really good moment for Michigan. It’s a moment of honesty. It’s a moment for improvement,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, an education advocacy group. “It’s a catalyst for really transforming our schools in the coming year.”

The Common Core standards, while controversial, have changed the way teachers teach — with more emphasis on a deeper understanding of material, more focus on critical-thinking skills and more emphasis on applying lessons to real-life situations.

Keesler said a highlight of the results is that proficiency rates are stronger for students in the early grades.

“The younger grades are the grades that have received instruction in the new standards for the entirety of their school career,” she said. “So, asking more of Michigan students is already producing more in those grades where that’s been how they’re expected to learn and that’s what they’ve been expected to do.”

Arellano said it will take time over the next few years for schools to become accustomed to the higher expectations. She said training for teachers is key.

“You have to invest in talent. We need to support teachers in our state. Ultimately, they are the leaders. They’re on the front lines of reaching students.”

Spring 2015 State Assessment Results

Here are the percentages of students at each grade level who passed the various subject tests that are part of the new Michigan Test of Educational Progress. Students took the exam for the first time this spring.

PERCENT PROFICIENT
Grade English/Language Arts Mathematics Science Social Studies
Grade 3 50 49 N/A* N/A*
Grade 4 47 41 12 N/A*
Grade 5 49 33 N/A* 22
Grade 6 45 33 N/A* N/A*
Grade 7 49 33 23 N/A*
Grade 8 48 32 N/A* 30
Grade 11 49 28 29 44

*Students were only tested in science and social studies at several grade levels

Source: Michigan Department of Education

2015 Michigan Merit Exam ACT Scores

High school juniors who took the ACT exam In March fared slightly better than their peers from a year before. Here are the average composite scores for each subject, along with a comparison to previous years.

SUBJECT 2015 AVERAGE 2014 AVERAGE 2013 AVERAGE 2012 AVERAGE
ACT All Subject 19.9 19.8 19.7 19.6
ACT English 19.4 18.9 18.8 18.7
ACT Mathematics 19.5 19.6 19.6 19.7
ACT Reading 20.1 19.8 19.6 19.5
ACT Science 20.1 20.1 20.1 19.9
ACT Writing* 6.7 6.8 6.8 6.8

* Writing is an optional part of the ACT exam

Source: Michigan Department of Education

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or lhiggins@freepress.com 

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