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Michigan GOP: Cancel standardized tests and 3rd grade reading law this year

Republicans, Democrats and school leaders now seem in agreement that students shouldn’t have to take the state M-STEP standardized test this spring. But it’s still unclear whether they will. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

June 15: Michigan schools revolt, won’t flunk struggling third-grade readers
May 26: Michigan’s 3rd-grade read-or-flunk law may expand to 4th grade next year
April 26: Some Michigan schools allow students to say ‘no thanks’ to M-STEP tests

The standardized test used in Michigan schools and a controversial law that would hold back third-graders who are poor readers would both be shelved for the current school year, as part of a set of school recovery bills introduced by Michigan Senate Republicans on Thursday.

Those moves are generally in line with the views of school officials and state Democratic leaders, some of whom have criticized the notion of giving standardized tests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The bills, along with a separate request made by Michigan School Superintendent Michael Rice to the U.S. Department of Education to put the standardized test, called M-STEP, on ice for a year, leaves the state’s testing regimen up in the air just a month before testing is scheduled to begin.

The M-STEP, given to students in grades 3-8, is the state test that allows cross-school comparisons of student achievement, as well offering clues over time as to whether schools are lagging or improving in academics.

All states are required to have a test similar to M-STEP by the federal Department of Education.

Normally administered in the spring, the M-STEP was shelved last year when all K-12 public schools were closed in March to try to stem the early spread of the coronavirus.

Many school officials, including Superintendent Rice and State Board of Education President Casandra Ulbrich, D-Dearborn, want the M-STEP scrapped for the current school year too. They and others have expressed concern that the standardized test will yield unreliable results in a year in which many Michigan students have lurched between homebound learning and classrooms with social distancing and face masks.

The U.S. Department of Education shot down a request by Michigan and several other states to nix the tests altogether, but offered states the opportunity to apply to offer alternative exams.

Rice has made that request, asking that Michigan schools be allowed to substitute benchmark assessments that are already being administered in all Michigan schools. Benchmark assessments take less time, and results are received quickly so teachers can adjust to support struggling students.

Different districts use different benchmark assessments, making cross-school comparisons impossible.

The Department of Education hasn’t yet given Michigan an answer on the request.

In a recent guest commentary in Bridge Michigan, Rice and Ulbrich wrote that a brutal school year “may get worse if our schools are forced to spend a good portion of the spring on Michigan’s year-end state summative tests (M-STEP) when teachers could better spend that time working with their students.”

The Republican bills go a step farther, though, promoting “a goal of eventually replacing (the M-STEP) with a more broadly accepted exam.”

“I’ve been working on issues surrounding our teacher and administrator evaluations for a few years now. It’s clear that M-STEP is absolutely the wrong way to evaluate student growth and teacher effectiveness,” said Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, vice chair of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee. 

“It’s even more imperative that we make changes this year as schools continue to deal with the extreme challenges created by the pandemic and don’t have M-STEP data from last year.”

While many teachers disdain standardized tests because they take time away from the classroom, scores from those tests can provide a wealth of information. For example, because the same test is given across the state, M-STEP scores can compare how well third-graders in Kalkaska are reading compared with third-graders, say, in Alpena or Grand Rapids. Education leaders can also see how students from different racial groups or economic levels score in eighth-grade science, which identifies achievement gaps and provides insight on how to reduce them.

Because the test is similar each year, school leaders also can examine whether student achievement is rising or declining year after year.

In Michigan the M-STEP is also used in an effort to hold staff accountable. For teachers, 40 percent of annual evaluations were to be based on growth in student test scores this year.

If the M-STEP isn’t given this year, it will be the second year in a row in which school leaders have no statewide, comparable data to determine how students are faring, or teachers are teaching. A switch to a new test would add several more years of uncertainty, because the results of different tests are difficult to compare.

If a new test is administered in 2022 instead of the M-STEP, it would become a baseline for test scores in future years.

In February, Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based school research and advocacy organization, told Bridge Michigan that even if tests are imperfect, they should be administered this year so schools have some idea how much students have struggled during the pandemic.

“The results of these assessments will not be comparable from district to district,” Arellano said. “Parents and families deserve to know whether their children are meeting college- and career-ready expectations — and  whether the education system is responding to and improving their opportunities to succeed.”

While advocating for the M-STEP to be administered, Arellano said she believes accountability measures connected to the test results, such as teacher evaluations and third-grade reading retention, should be paused until next year.

Third grade reading

Also included in the GOP bills is a provision that would delay until next year the implementation of the grade retention portion of the state’s third-grade reading law. Passed in 2016, the law recommends third graders be held back in grade if by the end of the year they remain a grade level behind in their reading on the M-STEP.

The law included funding for early literacy support to help identify and help struggling readers in early grades before they take the “read-or-flunk” test. Those efforts have been underway since 2017.

The retention portion of the law was to be first imposed in the 2019-20 school year. When the pandemic canceled the M-STEP, though, implementation was pushed to this school year.

The idea that slower readers would be held back a year has drawn criticism from school leaders and others, who argue that retention can cause long-term damage to students. In early 2020 before the pandemic, many school officials told Bridge Michigan they planned to ignore the law and promote third-graders to fourth grade as usual.

But the other part of the reading law — providing more resources to help struggling students — appears to be producing positive results. 

According to a Michigan State University study released earlier this week,  third-grade reading scores have improved every year since the law was passed, which, according to school leaders surveyed for the study, is the result of the state funneling extra dollars for schools for literacy coaches and classroom assistants.

“When you invest in funding for literacy coaches and progress monitoring and read-at-home plans for parents, surprise, reading scores increase,” said Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, who is a former teacher. “And we did this without mass retention.”

Polehanki told Bridge Michigan that the state should “keep the parts of the law that are beneficial and do away with mass flunking, especially in a pandemic.”

Polehanki said she had not had time to read the bills, which were introduced at midday Thursday, and didn’t know if there were elements of the bills to which she and other Democrats might object.

Also in the 11-bill package:

  • A requirement that schools develop individual student “academic assessment and recovery plans” that must be shared with parents by Aug. 14
  • That parents be allowed to request their children be retained in grade for the 2021-22 school year if they feel they are behind academically because of struggles with online learning
  • That the results of benchmark assessments taken this year in place of the M-STEP be made publicly available.
  • Districts would not be required to administer the Michigan Merit Exam, normally taken by 11th-graders, but would still be required to offer traditional college entrance exams, such as the PSAT, SAT and ACT.

“The first step toward getting students and schools back on track after a difficult year is to assess learning loss and provide the necessary tools to help our children recover academically,” Sen. Wane, Schmnidt, R-Traverse City, said in a statement.

“This plan would address these needs and allow collaboration between parents and the education community to help reverse the negative impacts the coronavirus has left on society as we work toward a safe transition back to normal life.”

One of the sponsors of the bills is Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chair of the  Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee.

“Michigan’s K-12 education system was completely disrupted by the coronavirus,” Theis said in a statement. “Through no fault of their own, students, parents, teachers and school administrators were thrown into an extraordinarily difficult situation due to the virus. This disruption has unfortunately caused too many students to struggle academically and fall behind on their grades, and some have even stopped participating in school altogether. The wide-ranging plan we are announcing is a positive step that will help our students recover academically and make Michigan a better place to teach and learn.”

The bills were referred to the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee.

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