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Michigan students to take standardized tests, but which one is unclear

kids in classroom taking test
The state is expecting Michigan schools to remain open to in-class learning this year, and has made it harder for districts to switch to remote instruction. (Shutterstock)

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

It’s unclear what standardized test Michigan students will take this spring.

It’s uncertain whether they will be administered at home or in classrooms.

And once test scores are in, it’s up in the air how those results will be used or what they’ll mean.


A day after the U.S. Department of Education shot down requests from  Michigan and other states to drop federally mandated student testing this school year amid COVID, the state’s schools, teachers and students still don’t know what to expect when testing begins in mid-April.

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 the MME, given to 11th-graders.

Those test scores can have ramifications for schools as well as for individual teachers, whose annual evaluations are based partly on student growth as measured by standardized tests.

But hours after federal officials on Monday turned down blanket waivers of testing, State Superintendent Michael Rice stepped in and said he will ask that students be allowed to skip the statewide M-STEP, allowing school districts to choose instead from a variety of tests they already administer to students. Rice said he’s asking federal education officials for permission to use those benchmark assessment tests this spring.

Rice’s statement leaves the state’s spring testing regimen unresolved until federal officials give a thumb’s up or down on his request. That decision will have a far-reaching impact, from determining how many days Michigan students spend taking standardized tests, to whether third-graders have to worry about being held back in grade for scoring poorly on reading, to whether the performance of schools can be compared to one another.

Here’s what we know so far:

Why do students take standardized tests?

The U.S. Department of Education requires standardized testing to compare student achievement between schools and classrooms. The test scores are intended to provide transparency on student achievement, and accountability for educators.

Scores from standardized 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 in Alpena or Grand Rapids. Education leaders can also see how students from different racial groups or economic levels score in eighth-grade science.

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 for accountability in several ways. Third-graders whose scores on the test indicate they are reading at a second grade or lower level can be recommended for retention in grade. For teachers, 40 percent of annual evaluations were to be based on growth in student test scores this year.

What’s the controversy this year?

The impact of COVID-19.

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

In January, State Superintendent Michael Rice again requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, citing an inability to give standardized tests when nothing about the current school year has been standard, including a second wave of the coronavirus that began in the late fall.

Some students still haven’t returned to classrooms more than 11 months after the beginning of the pandemic, while others have had face-to-face instruction for much of the 2020-21 school year.

Experts fear the tests, which are stubbornly correlated to income in normal years, might show even larger gaps between poor and non-poor students this year because of, among other factors, differences in access to reliable Internet for online classes.

“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 his request for a test waiver.

Proponents of giving standardized tests argue the pandemic increases the need for testing to measure the impact of remote learning and determine where best to marshal resources to help struggling students.

What’s the difference between M-STEP and other tests?

The state M-STEP is taken over the course of three to five days. It’s not uncommon for classes to spend weeks prepping for the test, according to educators.

Results typically aren’t received until close to the end of the school year, making the results of little contemporaneous help in classrooms.

Benchmark assessment tests, on the other hand, which is what Rice is pushing for, are required to be given at least twice a year under the state’s Return to Learn legislation passed in the summer of 2020. The tests are short — as little as 45 minutes per subject area — produce immediate results, and are studied to determine the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, allowing teachers to adjust their teaching to meet students’ needs.

“The benchmark assessments are more responsive because you get the information immediately to influence learning,” said Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools near Grand Rapids.

Those benchmark assessment tests, though, vary by school district. There are five different assessments approved by the state, and districts are also free to develop their own assessments.

That makes student achievement comparisons between schools difficult.

“The results of these assessments will not be comparable from district to district,” Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based school research and advocacy organization, said in a statement. “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.”

Not everyone agrees. 

Whatever the benefit of statewide comparisons, they’re not worth the cost of lost instruction time during a pandemic, said Doug Pratt, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union. 

“So much has been made about the learning time that has been lost” during the pandemic, Pratt said. “We shouldn’t be spending time that could be used learning on testing.”

Have other states tweaked standardized tests this year?

In Texas, many students can choose to skip the state’s standardized test this year.

In Tennessee, the legislature passed a bill that holds students, teachers and schools harmless for the results of standardized testing this school year. That way, school leaders can measure the impact of the pandemic without anyone being punished for potential learning loss caused by remote learning.

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, vice chair of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, introduced a set of bills in the Michigan Legislature that would eliminate M-STEP student test score growth from being factored into teacher evaluations.

“It isn’t fair to the teachers or the students in the end,” Horn told Bridge Michigan.

That compromise — holding tests but stripping out accountability for this year — is something Detroit Public Schools Community District Nickolia Vitti likes.

Vitti told Bridge last week the tests should not be used to hold teachers and students accountable for their performance this year, but rather to collect data on how much learning loss students have suffered during the pandemic.

“I do think it’s important to know where children are at and to properly advocate for their support,” he said. “It’ll be much easier to make those justifications if we have data to show and quantify the amount of loss that we’ve seen.”

Horn, who spoke to Bridge Michigan before the U.S. Department of Education rejected Michigan’s request for a test waiver, said he would prefer to not have standardized testing until after the pandemic.

“To be able to teach people over Zoom on the kind of things you need for standardized tests” is difficult, Horn said. “Every kid is wired differently. They handle stress differently. So let’s get them back as close to normal as possible before we go back to testing.”

What happens next?

Michigan is waiting for a decision from federal officials on whether the various benchmark assessments now being used in schools will meet federal requirements this school year, or whether the M-STEP is required.

The U.S. Department of Education’s letter to state school leaders said the department was open to “flexibility” in testing.

“I appreciate that, during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education has recognized the need for a number of flexibilities, including school identification, accountability, and participation rate,” Rice said in a statement late Monday. 

Rice added that the Michigan Department of Education “will be reaching out to and working with the U.S. Department of Education to share the value of the benchmark assessments administered statewide during this year.”

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