Michigan schools are now average. That’s progress.


Michigan public school students show marked improvement compared to their peers in other states, according to national test results released Wednesday. 

On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” Michigan students were firmly in the middle of the pack in eighth-grade math and reading (28th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in both) and fourth-grade reading (32d); Michigan fourth-graders were 42d in math, a drop from 38th in 2017.

While approaching average doesn’t sound like cause for celebration, it does indicate that Michigan schools, which have languished in the bottom third of the nation for most of the decade, may be improving when compared to other states.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called the results a “step in the right direction,” and “great news for our students and families that we’re making progress on literacy.”

In general, Michigan improved by not losing ground: Its tests scores were similar to those in 2017 when the test was last administered, while many states, and the national average, declined slightly over that period. NAEP officials Tuesday said they did not know why scores were dropping nationally.

Detroit’s fourth-graders took a leap forward in math, raising their average scores by the most of any of the nation’s major cities that took part in the test. Still, Detroit remains at the back of the pack among 27 large cities across the country that volunteer to participate.

Only Detroit’s traditional public school students took the NAEP test ‒ public charter schools and private schools were excluded. The NAEP is given to a sample of students in cities and states across the country.

State-level tests, such as Michigan’s M-STEP, offer comparisons of schools within state borders, but say nothing about how Michigan students fare against their peers in other states.

That’s where the NAEP comes in. The biennial NAEP test results give education leaders, politicians and families of school children state-to-state comparisons of education systems. Without NAEP, Michigan would have difficulty determining if its schools are doing great or horribly compared to the rest of the nation.

The test was administered to about 300,000 students in traditional public, charter and private schools nationally in the spring of 2019, along with 27 urban districts including Detroit.

Major takeaways from the Michigan results: 

  • Michigan’s early literacy efforts may be paying off. Fourth-graders ranked 41st in the nation in 2015. The state has spent at least $80 million since then on attempts to improve reading in early grades in preparation for a third-grade read-or-flunk law that kicks in this year. In 2017, the first year additional funding for reading was available in schools, Michigan’s ranking jumped to 35th, and then to 32nd this year. 
  • White students and non-poor students scored the best among student subgroups in fourth-grade reading, but they also ranked poorly compared to their demographic peers nationwide. White fourth-graders ranked 40th in the nation among white students in reading, and Michigan’s non-poor fourth-graders ranked 35th.
  • The achievement gap between black and white students in Michigan has narrowed since 2003 in fourth-grade math and reading and eighth-grade math and English. That narrowing is the result of academic gains by African-American students. 
  • However, the gap between poor and non-poor students hasn’t budged since 2003. Both gaps are similar to gaps found nationally. 
  • Michigan has the lowest percentage of fourth-graders reading at a “proficient” level in the Midwest, at 32 percent. In Ohio, 36 percent are rated proficient; in Indiana, 37 percent. The national average is 34 percent.
  • Fourth-grade math is now Michigan’s biggest problem area in the test. It is the only tested area that saw the state’s ranking drop in 2019, to 42nd, from 38th nationally in 2017.
  • Yet eighth-grade math is a bright spot, ranking 28th in the nation, 10 spots higher than a decade ago.

Michigan School Superintendent Michael Rice said the state’s schools improved their ranking among peers in other states despite “two significant challenges: a statewide teacher shortage (there are teacher shortages nationally), which adversely affects most severely the highest poverty and/or most remote districts, and inadequate and inequitable state funding for Michigan’s 1.5 million children.

“Imagine how much more rapid our improvement could be if we invested more in our children and funded their specific needs,” Rice said.

John Yun, associate professor of education at Michigan State University, who looked at the latest NAEP data for Bridge, pointed to another warning sign inside the data. While test score averages for the state are flat, there is a growing gap between the state’s highest-achieving students and its lowest-achieving. The test scores of those two groups are diverging, Yun said. 

For example, in eighth-grade math, the gap between the top 10 percent of readers and the lowest 10 percent has grown by almost a semester of learning over the past decade, according to NAEP scores.

“People are reading much better now than two decades ago, but we’ve given back a lot of the gains since 2009,” Yun said. “And it’s striking that the losses are most felt at the lowest achievement levels.”

Amber Arellano, executive director of Michigan-based Education Trust-Midwest, said she saw glimmers of hope and pessimism for Michigan schools in the latest test results.

“Today is cause for a sobering celebration,” Arellano said. “Between 2017 and 2019, Michigan low-income students led the nation for improvement in eighth-grade math. These notable gains should be applauded.

“On the other hand, Michigan is still not a top-improving state since 2003 for key subjects such as early reading. And the data suggest Michigan is many years away from becoming a top education state for all students, particularly students who are most left behind in our state. This new data should be a clarion call for changing how we invest and support public education for all children in our state."

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Chuck Fellows
Wed, 10/30/2019 - 9:43am

Understand the NAEP first before drawing any conclusions.
NAEP https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/guides/

Users are cautioned against interpreting NAEP results as implying causal relations. Inferences related to student group performance or to the effectiveness of public and nonpublic schools, for example, should take into consideration the many socioeconomic and educational factors that may also have an impact on performance.
The NAEP reading scale makes it possible to examine relationships between students' performance and various background factors measured by NAEP. However, a relationship that exists between achievement and another variable does not reveal its underlying cause, which may be influenced by a number of other variables. Similarly, the assessments do not reflect the influence of unmeasured variables. The results are most useful when they are considered in combination with other knowledge about the student population and the educational system, such as trends in instruction, changes in the school-age population, and societal demands and expectations.

NAEP is given to a representative sample of students across the country. Results are reported for groups of students with similar characteristics (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, school location), not individual students. National results are available for all subjects assessed by NAEP. State and selected urban district results are available for mathematics, reading, and (in some assessment years) science and writing.

Since NAEP is designed to produce group scores, and is prohibited by Congress from reporting individual student results, it tests only a relatively small number of students in each state. Also, each student in the NAEP sample takes just part of the full assessment. By law, NAEP is forbidden to report individual school results, to influence curriculum, and to be used for high-stakes purposes.

The average scores and percentages presented are estimates because they are based on representative samples of students rather than on the entire population of students. Moreover, the collection of subject-area questions used at each grade level is but a sample of the many questions that could have been asked. As such, NAEP results are subject to a measure of uncertainty, reflected in the standard error of the estimates. The standard errors for the estimated scale scores and percentages in the figures and tables presented on this website are available through the NAEP Data Explorer.

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 3:16pm

Are you saying it wasn't the kids that should be credited with the results? It sounds like you are suggesting it was all the other things around the students that determine what is being measured and that the students had no material part in what is being reported on.
Where you seem to look at everything else, I want to listen to the students [who is a more knowledgeable person about their individual barriers to learning, who knows better what they do to overcome those barriers, and what they need to overcome those barriers. If you are telling me the ones who have been tested for this report were specially selected, then why not start by talking to them about why they achieved these results?
The exclusion of the student from all the discussions and comments about education is why I am losing faith in the educational process, nobody seems to believe the students have a role in their learning, that what they do doesn't matter, so we should ignore their responsibilities for their academic success. If a person that seems to want the system to work is so quick to exclude the students in his comments what hope is there for student learning?

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 11/02/2019 - 4:46pm

That is the problem with standardized tests. They don't tell the students or the teachers what they did wrong, so they know what they need to work on. That seems to be the only justifiable reason for tests. For reading it is even more complicated (than math) because it depends on what the student is reading. If a student is reading something interesting to that student (usually because she/he has some subject knowledge), the scores will be higher. When a student reads something uninteresting or beyond their ability (Vygotsky), the reader becomes frustrated and scores poorly. Worse, such teaching and testing can make it so the student hates reading. When I read the article about the 3rd grade reading law with all the extra testing going on, it just made me sick. NAEP and MStep etc are not about individual students.

Wed, 11/13/2019 - 5:04pm

From my experience seeing the results that are given to the teacher you can see the areas that the child needs to improve in. The problem of course is that they are extremely general terms so yes they do not provide specifics. For instance with my son he scored extremely high in Math on his arithmetic ability. He scored extremely low however on the math questions that are story based. Which is something I already knew so the test reflected reality. The same with the reading test. He followed the stories well. No matter if they were fiction or non fiction. His problem was that he didn't understand how to tell what the main ideas were, or read for themes. That is also a struggle I already knew about. So I would say the test accurately measured things, but there's nothing done to address the results. It's not like students are relegated to separate classes to focus on their weaknesses while spending less time with their strengths, in order to make a balanced student. No they are switched back to the exact same curriculum and as such my child has had the exact same performance with the exact same categories since he was in 2nd grade, his scores are close to perfect on the same parts of the tests. He is in 5th grade now showing me that either his teacher or the curriculum doesn't care to address his weaknesses and despite how much time I spend with him I don't seem to having an effect either. I would imagine the same is true in regards to increasing strengths and not improving upon weaknesses around the state.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 10/30/2019 - 11:29am

This should be taken with a large grain of salt...
First of all, there is nothing to suggest that the change in Michigan's scores are statistically significant. (It could be 'normal' variation, and mean absolutely nothing.)
Secondly, the 'increases' are reported as largely being due to the decline in other states' scores. Whoopy! Other states are doing worse! Does this really deserve any celebration?
Finally, below average performance (regardless of the reason) should never be taken as a sign of success. It is a sign of continuing mediocrity.

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 1:45pm

I agree.

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 12:54pm

With the two previous commenters not unwarranted skepticism regarding results showing improvement in Michigan's performance, isn't it equally valid to question the same results we received before showing Michigan in the statistical performance basement? As with most things, there are enough "moving parts" to every sociological phenomena and study result to take them all with a large grain of salt. But seems when results enforce an agenda, skepticism vanishes.

middle of the mit
Wed, 10/30/2019 - 8:27pm

Again with the conservatives telling us that sampling or polling isn't the way to determine who is or isn't above or below reading levels that the kids should be in. Who determines that? What standards do they hold themselves to?

If our kids have to be held to a higher standard, why not help them achieve that? Why question what is working? Hey! We aren't Michisippi yet! Be thankful and stop being scrooge.

We literally have to be a contender with those other States and Countries. It is a priority. And text language isn't going to work until about 20 or more years from now.

Conservatives complain because tax money very rarely gets to the classroom. I would argue that most of the tax money goes to providing the classrooms and building and upkeep and bussing. The rest? It's split between the administrators and the teachers.

Here is where conservatives have a conundrum. They don't like teachers, but that is literally where the money gets to the classroom, EDUCATION from someone that is able and more than willing to do it. They also don't like administrators. I would refer to them as CEO's.

I am not saying what conservatives say about them. They do a needed job. But why do conservatives think that neither one of those two professions are needed? Or are worth less value than a CEO at, lets say, an insurance company? Because education isn't a publicly traded business (with shareholder value) yet?

Open question.

I don't know the answers. That is why I come to this site. Because they report on these matters and then I can hear from the experts in their fields. You don't ask a roofer to wire your house for electricity do you? Coming to a conservative State near you, if not your own, when they get rid of certifications, qualifications and licenses that inhibit entrepreneurs from starting their fledgling business.

You wait. They are already talking about it and it is in effect in Charter Schools, at least for teachers. Go apply!