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Michigan students must take M-STEP, despite COVID, Biden administration says

Kid in classroom
Michigan students will be required to take standardized tests this spring, though it’s possible some students may take the tests remotely from home. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

April 26 update: Some Michigan schools allow students to say ‘no thanks’ to M-STEP tests

April 7 update: Students in COVID-weary Michigan schools must take M-STEP, feds say

Michigan students will have to take the M-STEP this spring, after federal authorities denied a state request to cancel the standardized tests because of pandemic classroom disruptions.

The Monday decision from the U.S. Department of Education means students, some of whom still haven’t returned to classrooms since the pandemic began 11 months ago, will take the same tests as students do at the end of a normal year of learning.

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It’s unclear yet whether students in districts that are still fully remote, as well as students who have opted to learn at home, will be allowed to take those tests in their homes or will be asked to come into classrooms.

The federal government requires some form of standardized test to compare student achievement between schools and classrooms. In Michigan, that test is the M-STEP, administered to students in grades 3 to 8 and 11. In Michigan, test scores can have ramifications for schools as well as for individual teachers, whose annual evaluations are based partly on student growth measured by standardized tests.

The M-STEP wasn’t given to students in the spring of 2020, after Michigan and many other states asked for waivers in the wake of mass school closures due to COVID-19.

In January, Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice joined several states in seeking a waiver, citing an inability to give standardized tests when nothing about this school year has been standard.

“Without uniform testing conditions, adequate participation, and appropriate test security measures, summative assessment results will misrepresent achievement,” Rice wrote to acting U.S. Secretary of Education Phil Rosenfelt.

“In the spring of 2021, instructional conditions will still vary across the state in combinations of at-home, in-person, and hybrid instruction. Thus, … summative test results will not be reliable, comparable, generalizable, or valid for their intended purposes,” Rice wrote.

Federal officials disagreed, issuing a blanket rejection of state waiver requests. In a letter to state school officials nationwide, officials wrote that “state assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity.

“To be successful once schools have reopened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” the letter read. “We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs. In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing.”

The letter urged states to offer flexibility from traditional test-taking requirements that include tests be taken in school settings under supervision. The federal government also suggested, but did not mandate, that states shorten the tests, offer remote testing or extend the time frame during which the tests can be given.

In Michigan, the M-STEP is currently scheduled between mid-April and mid-May.

Many teachers and school leaders are opposed to standardized testing in general, and more so during a pandemic school year in which it’s expected that students will learn less than they would normally. A 2019 survey of Michigan educators found that teachers, by a 3-to-1 margin, said they believed the M-STEP wasn’t useful.

The tests take at least three days away from instruction, preceded by several weeks of test prep. While the tests have no bearing on the grades or advancement of most children, schools and teachers can be penalized for low learning growth. Currently, 40 percent of teacher evaluations are based on student achievement on the tests.

Robert McCann, executive director of the K12 Alliance of Michigan, a school advocacy organization, said it’s vital that teachers be able to use every minute of teaching time for learning, rather than testing.

“We need to focus on the individual needs of every student,” McCann said. “It’s unfortunate that the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t recognize that standardized tests won’t give us the answers we need.”

But groups from the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to Education Trust-Midwest argue that testing has never been more important. 

This year’s tests will be the first indication of how students have fared academically during the pandemic and offer guidance for how the state should marshal resources to help mitigate learning loss, the groups argue.

 “We … urge the Michigan Department of Education to embrace this decision as an opportunity to commit to administering statewide summative assessments, as well as collecting data on multiple measures, including school climate, student access to resources and opportunities, and student learning outcomes,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, in a statement. 

“These are essential tools to address systemic inequities in our education system, as well as gauge the quality of instruction and support offered under COVID-19 restrictions.”

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