5 ways to improve standardized testing in Michigan schools

In the Clarkston Community Schools, we have established a clear vision: to cultivate thinkers, learners, and positive contributors to a global society. More than words on paper, this vision compels us to do the very best we can every day for each child. We work together with parents to ensure that our students achieve academically and develop holistically by serving the community, engaging in co-curricular activities, and pursuing their passions. When an assessment disrupts learning, puts undue physical and emotional stress on students, and does not produce timely and accurate data to advance our vision, it cannot meet our commitment to our kids.

This spring, our students, and thousands of others across Michigan, have engaged in the State’s new computerized M-STEP test, almost exclusively in the areas of language arts and mathematics. Despite many technological challenges, including numerous login and connectivity issues, generally speaking, the technology is handling the tests.

But, to be sure, kids are not computers. Biologically, they are not programmed to concentrate for hours at a time. At elementary schools, fifth graders have to endure up to 4 straight hours of analyzing information and writing essays, online. While the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) estimated that fifth grade students would test for up to 9.5 hour, many of Clarkston’s students ended up testing for nearly 12 hours. Parents report elementary children experiencing headaches, crying the night after the test, and having trouble sleeping.

Parents of secondary students report similar issues, along with disruptions in course content. Teachers are pulled from classes to administer tests and students are pulled from classes to take the tests. Teachers either avoid exploring new content or have students make it up on their own at home. Schools expect many more disruptions to students’ learning before the M-STEP concludes at the end of the school year.

Given these issues, why does the MDE mandate that students take these tests? The answer is simple: The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 requires the administration of a statewide assessment each year. The original intent of this law was laudable: to create an accountability system that promotes equality of opportunity and access to high quality learning environments for all students along with continuous and substantial academic improvement for every child.

Ironically, students’ test scores have for most groups only stagnated or declined in the decade since NCLB, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress. Moreover, our nation’s fixation on assessments has narrowed the curriculum toward tested subjects ‒ language arts and mathematics ‒ and lessened the amount of time students spend studying science, social studies, and the arts. NCLB has increased class time spent on test preparation, expanded the federal role in education, and heightened local expenditures on the tested subjects as federal spending in these areas has remained static.

Lastly, NCLB placed tremendous emphasis on students scoring on the margins and not on those who need the most help. Michigan’s M-STEP seems to have gone one step further in disrupting students’ learning for an extended period of time. This must change.

To make assessments worthy of our students’ time and efforts, we need not one Mis-STEP, but five steps forward toward a balanced-assessment system:

  1. Rather than one mandated state test, allow collaborative, flexible, alternative assessment processes between the state and local school districts.
  2. Allow school districts to develop assessments that reflect local values for learning, such as projects and portfolios scored by teachers, that require students to solve real problems and document students’ growth-over-time toward agreed upon standards.
  3. Limit state-level assessments to three to four checkpoints across grades 3 through 11, rather than annual disruptions.
  4. Use nationally normed and locally developed assessments already in place to measure achievement in the years without state tests.
  5. Continue developing a computer adaptive, state-level assessments that accurately measure students’ learning and deliver data in a timely manner.

This combination of changes will create balanced assessment systems that provide schools, teachers, families, students and the state with real-time data on students’ growth over time; increase meaningful learning across all subject areas; improve college and career readiness based upon students’ abilities to solve real problems; and align with local districts’ visions for what is best for kids. Let us, as a state, communities, and local school districts, paint holistic pictures of students’ learning, representing their achievements as much more than standardized test scores.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Bill Bock
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 9:55am
Richard McLellan
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 9:56am
This seems thoughtful and reasonable. Will Bridge publish the other side? Given the massive amount of time and money legislators and state education officials are putting in to testing, they would have a good defense for their policies.
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 10:05am
And while we are at it- #6- Don't force an unfunded mandate on districts like online testing. State of MI- if you require it then YOU pay for it!
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 10:21am
As a mom of 3, standardized testing is a big concern to me. My oldest child who is now succeeding at a college-level without difficulty, was always the "borderline" child in these tests. She has some ADD and has an incredibly creative mind. These tests do not reflect intelligence, success or capabilities of all students. While she never did well on the standardized tests, she has been on the dean's list for the last two years. It took getting out of the standardized-type education to really see her thrive. She does not have to sit in a classroom focused for any extended length of time which allows her mind to reset in between classes and allows her to focus when she needs. Projects and application to the real world are the focus in her education now which is perfect for her. My other two children are the exact opposite. They could master any standardized test with very little instruction a few minutes before the test is given. Their brains are programmed to think the way the developers of the standardized test want all people to think. Is it fair to measure a teacher's success on the outcome of both these types of students taking the same standardized test? Absolutely not, the measurement of a great teacher is to alter lesson plans to successfully educate all students. Teachers understand this and have been fighting the core since it's inception. I do not understand why lawmakers think they can put everyone into the same test and make them equal. The world needs all types of people to make it successful. Those creative, imaginative students are the inventors of the future and with this testing you are telling them they are stupid. My oldest went through her entire education process feeling like she would never be enough. Is this really what we want for our children? Now onto the MSTEP and the CORE Curriculum, in our district the math level was initially taught at a higher level than the CORE has designed. Last year when this "new curriculum" was introduced, 75% of what they learned was a repeat of the previous year to bring them in line with the new curriculum. We have not started the MSTEP testing for our grade level yet, although the amount of time dedicated to it is unreal and time frame from the state is unrealistic. It wastes valuable learning time for a test that truly measures nothing except whose brain function fits in the box. The above comments from Clarkston schools suggesting projects and other forms of measurements during off years is a great suggestion and would allow highly educated teachers to develop testing that would truly assess all students.
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 3:52pm
The writers suggest 5 steps to take that would improve assessment of student learning, in their opinions. Implementing the first 4 of these 5 suggestions would require changes to both Federal and state regulations, and several of them are mutually contradictory. If Michigan's legislature were to allow school districts to develop their own local assessments per suggestion 1, we lose the major reason for NCLB tests - the ability to compare results across school districts over time. If teachers want to use project- or portfolio-based assessments tied to learning goals as in suggestion 2, there is absolutely nothing stopping them. Project-based teaching and learning is considered to be a pedagogical best practice. Many teachers already do this, but again, without using a standard project or portfolio content list and assessment rubric, there is no way to compare the results across school districts. Replacing annual standardized tests with projects, papers, or a portfolio cannot therefore meet the goals of NCLB or the replacement legislation proposed last month in the House and Senate. Same with suggestion 3. Annual testing in grades 3 through 8 and 11 will almost certainly remain as a Federal requirement. Annual measures of individual student learning are particularly important to parents of students with disabilities, families that have experienced trauma, and to school officials attempting to narrow achievement gaps. As long as legislatures budget on an annual basis, schools should expect requirements for annual assessment of most students. Suggestion 4 has some merit when suggesting that we should be using nationally-normed assessments. Michigan should not continue to "go it alone" when developing assessments. Both the old MEAP and the new MI-STEP tests are NOT nationally normed, and are therefore not very useful in determining how our students and our schools are performing in comparison to other states and other countries. Lastly, Michigan should quit trying to re-invent the wheel rejoin one of the consortiums that are actively developing adaptive, computer-based assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Either the Smarter Balanced Assessment or PARCC would both more directly comparable and less expensive than continuing to develop Michigan-only assessment instruments. They would also give more timely feedback to the parents, students, teachers and administrators throughout Michigan.
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 5:10pm
Stop standardized testing entirely, since the process provides no meaningful or useful information. Worse yet, there are the unintended consequences of doing harm to the child. If you wish to know if a child is learning, ask the child and that child's teacher. At the early elementary levels that is possible, but as children move on in the calendar driven, age graded conformist outcome system of education it becomes more and more difficult, especially as teacher student load (not ratio, that is deceiving) increases and regulatory compliance issues (i.e. externally mandated testing) grow. Let teachers teach and children learn. Tell the cynics of the Boardroom that if they refuse to trust people to do the work they are passionate about to simply go away. And to all those Department of Education types, your role is to support what teachers and children do on their mutual learning journey, not demand compliance with your voluminous policy minutia.
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 9:27pm
Without having a purpose for the testing how can we make a knowledgeable judgement on the ways to make the testing better? Are the authors only driven by making the test shorter so they won't be a burden for the students, making the testing process more streamline so there will be less demand on the teachers, make changes to lower the cost for the school districts? If the authors don't describe the purpose they see for the testing then they are leaving that to the assumption of the reader. And we know what happens when people ass-u-me. I wonder what the students think of when taking the test if they do know why they are taking the tests, when they don't know their purpose.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/10/2015 - 11:18pm
From what I understand the teachers and students will not know after taking the M-Step what they needed to know to do better or what they should do to improve their skills. Without using assessments to help students improve their learning, they are useless and worse. From what I understand from the new NCLB, their will continue to be standardized tests as now, but the DOE can't mandate the kinds of tests. We already have the NAEP.
Mon, 05/11/2015 - 10:31am
We need to hold our students strictly accountable for their test scores as they do in every other advanced country! Our students have about zero accountability and often bubble in random answers to get tests completed quickly. In other countries they study for weeks and months in advance because they know their scores affect if they pass, what grades they get and what high schools or colleges they may attend. Until we have such accountability the tests and the scores are largely meaningless and a waste of time and money. Testing in the US seems to be more about politics and profits for the testing companies and not at all about real evaluation or making real improvements.