On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class

teacher in classroom

A slight improvement in some classroom rankings masks Michigan’s flatlined scores in math and reading scores.

Michigan schools continue to flounder in the bottom third of the nation.

Scores released Tuesday by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card,” indicate Michigan schools have made little progress in recent years despite years of sounding alarms by state, business and education leaders.

Related Michigan education stories:

According to NAEP results ‒ from tests given to a sample of students in every state in 2017 ‒ Michigan ranks 35th in fourth-grade reading skills. That’s up from 41st in 2015, but still notably lower than the 28th the state was ranked in 2003, the first year Michigan participated in the test.

Michigan also saw a small improvement in state rankings in fourth-grade math (38th, from 42nd), eighth-grade math (33rd, from 34th) and eighth-grade reading (30th, from 31st).

But beneath those rankings, there is little to celebrate. Consider:

  • Michigan’s rank in fourth-grade reading went up six spots. But that’s mainly because other states’ scores dropped. The average score Michigan students earned on that test was higher as recently as 2011.
  • In fourth-grade math, Michigan students score average was the lowest in the state’s history of taking the test, back to 2003.
  • Eighth-grade math scores have remained virtually unchanged for 14 years.
  • Low-income fourth-graders rank 49th in math, compared to poor students in other states; white students are 46th in fourth-grade reading compared to white students elsewhere.
  • We rank last in the Midwest in every category.

While the test indicates that Michigan may have arrested its more than decade-long educational slide, it also enumerates just how far the state is from becoming a top 10 state in education, the goal set by the Michigan Department of Education to be reached by 2026.

Recent Michigan education stories

Why NAEP scores matter

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 gives 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.

The test is administered to about 300,000 students in public and private schools nationally, along with 27 urban districts including Detroit.

RELATED: You can see sample math questions here and reading questions here.

“The Nation's Report Card provides us with the very best data we have to understand how our students stack up against those in other states,” said Michelle Richard, an education researcher and vice president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy firm.

Those results have not been kind to Michigan. “Over the past decade, Michigan's NAEP results have been stunning,” Richard said.  “Nearly everyone else is doing better than we are. Why? What are they doing that we're not?”

Reading rank plummets for white students

In 2003, Michigan’s white fourth-graders ranked 14th in the nation in reading; By 2017, they’d fallen to 46th.

Focus on leading states

“Any improvement is a good thing,” said Elizabeth Moje, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, who examined the NAEP results for Bridge. “The fact we’re doing better than we were is good.

But Moje urged policymakers to be cautious about celebrating a slight improvement in state rankings, and instead look at what can be learned from leading states.

Massachusetts leads the nation in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades. Massachusetts fourth-graders scored about 1.5 grade levels higher in reading than the average fourth-grader in Michigan (a 10-point NAEP scoring gap is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning).

Massachusetts education leaders “do some pretty amazing things,” Moje said. “They’re investing in education. It’s a systems approach, not individual districts” figuring out what to do.

Issue Guide: Michigan's K-12 performance dropping at alarming rate
Issue Guide: Many Michigan K-12 reform ideas are jumbled, broad, or wildly expensive

“Instead of using (NAEP) scores to say, ‘Hey, we’re doing better (than we were), we should be saying, ‘Who do we want to be like, and what are they doing to get there, because they’re not that different from us,’” Moje said.

Sarah Lenhoff, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wayne State University, said Michigan’s scores are basically flat. “You don’t want to improve your rank because a few other states are doing worse,” Lenhoff said. “That’s not improvement.

“The rank is a useful guidepost,” Lenhoff said, “but when we’re actually talking about the kind of learning we want our students to experience, the kinds of skills we want them to have when they move on to college and the workforce, the rank is less useful than looking at the average scores and thinking about how little progress we’ve made in changing the trajectory of student success.”

Lenhoff said she is particularly distressed by achievement gaps between white and African-American students. In fourth-grade math, Michigan’s  African-American students are the equivalent of three grade levels behind whites. Poverty doesn’t account for all of that gap – the divide between poor and non-poor fourth-graders is about half as wide as the divide between African-Americans and whites.

“That’s completely unacceptable that we have a group of students not learning,” Lenhoff said.

Grand Rapids summit: West Michigan leaders join chorus for state education reform
Detroit summit: Getting past politics to give Michigan the schools it deserves

Large wealth gap in test scores

Test scores are stubbornly aligned with family income. The gap between test scores earned by those qualifying for free or reduced lunch and those who do not has remained steady, both in Michigan and most states.

At least a dozen reports have been published in recent years focusing on how to improve Michigan schools. So far, there has been little action on those reports.

“The fact we haven’t improved is concerning,” Lenhoff said of the latest NAEP scores. “We need a major reform in investment to make us happy and proud in 10 years.”

The Michigan Department of Education released a statement on the NAEP results, noting that while Michigan’s scores “have ticked-up slightly and we’ve gone up in the state rankings, we know there is a lot more work to do.

“These tests were given in 2017 when we were one year into our efforts to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years. Michigan is not yet where it needs to be. There is a Top 10 in 10 plan, we need to stick with it, and give our students and educators the opportunity to keep improving.”

Which states are doing better than Michigan? Most of them

Click on the tabs below to see how Michigan students stack up. States highlighted in blue all had higher scores on the 2017 battery of tests.

4th grade reading 4th grade math 8th grade reading 8th grade math

Fourth grade reading

Fourth grade math

Eighth grade reading

Eighth grade math

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Arjay
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 8:50am

One has to wonder at the validity of the test when the scores for fourth grade reading only range from a high of 235 (MA) to a low of 207 (AK) with most clustered in the low 220's. Sort of reminds me of the car quality rankings where they are so centered that knowledgeable car people say that car quality is about equivalent for everyone. While I didn't spend time looking at the other 3 tests, I believe the results would be similar.

Zeke
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 12:42pm

Dear Arjay I believe the test mythology is the same for each state so the scores reflect reality. To give some meat to the deplorable comparison of Michigan to the High State Scores lets use the point difference to show how many years behind is Michigan. Note that a difference of 10 points is equal to a year of learning {see above in report}. MI is 1.5 years behind NJ in 4th Grade Reading and 1.3 years behind MA in 4th Grade Math. MI is 1.2 years behind MA in 8th Grade Reading and 1.7 years behind MA in 8th Grade Math. Lets reasonably assume that these point differences carry through High School, That means MI Students going into College are significantly behind going into College and may never make up the difference, This is why intelligent parents move out of MI and those that can't afford to move suffer greatly throughout the job earning process. Lets face it. Low school achievement portends a negative future for MI.

***
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 11:27am

Business leaders and administrator types have all these barnstorming sessions trying to figure out how to make the schools better but the teachers on the front line everyday are the ones who are going to make the difference (along with parental involvement). I would like to see people move away from the concept of "fixing" the schools, that term to me implies an overall simplistic outlook on making something better like changing a flat tire and everything is OK now. Get rid of the word "fix" and use a term something like long term gradual improvement. Impatient politicians wanting immediate results are too focused on "fixing" the situation.

Matt
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 2:33pm

This would be more interesting if you would pick a school(s), (not super wealthy district), that is successful in your judgment, and contrast it in depth with comparable low achieving districts. What are the successful schools in MI doing different that the unsuccessful ones in MI, aren't doing or visa versa? Constantly comparing different states' scores is too much apples and oranges, hard to interpret and comes off as useless whining.

Ed Haynor
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 5:46pm

Simply put, if choice, charters and competition improve schools, particularly in Detroit, there's no sign of it; actually Michigan is going backward regarding student achievement. Republican control of Michigan for most of the 21st century is the common denominator responsible for public school failure.

Matt
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 8:02am

Please supply any examples of anything that is working in Detroit schools. While you are at it explain why these successful methodologies can only be delivered by government run schools. I suspect if you can get past your confirmation bias you'd find many common denominators for our "failing" schools.

Ed Haynor
Thu, 04/12/2018 - 4:33pm

A common denominator is a common factor in different events. Whether these events are the loss of local control, poor direction from the state department of education, lack of curriculum, too much testing, de-professionalizing the teaching profession, lack of proper funding, etc., etc., etc. There's only one common denominator in all of these events, regarding the failure of Michigan schools. It's called the republican party.

Anna
Thu, 05/17/2018 - 11:14am

Ed, the charter schools in Detroit scored, on average, TWICE as well as the Detroit Community Public Schools did on the 2017 round of M-STEP tests, and also on the NAEP. That is not to say that they scored well, they didn't, just that the charters did significantly better than the public schools did. There is also strong evidence, collected by researchers from Stanford, that Detroit students academic performance improves more the longer they attend a charter school.

Some of that effect may be due to greater parental involvement. Parents who must actively enroll their students in charter schools and who transport them to and from school may be responsible for the entire difference in academic performance. But since Michigan charter schools get, on average, 20% less money per pupil from state and local governments than public schools do, and have to pay for their buildings entirely out of their general fund - no bond money - as a taxpayer in Michigan I say "bring them on!

Erwin Haas
Tue, 04/10/2018 - 7:46pm

My recent post on Power's snooze describes my criticisms of the Public Schools. In short, the whole expensive and wasteful theory is fatally flawed and no amount of money or hand wringing by business leaders, educators and other ward heelers will fix it.
If you want to improve the PS, get better students. The problem with stagnant MEAP scores in Michigan reflects the emigration of our brightest and most ambitious young people over the last 40 or more years. Performance in PS is, at its core, a heritable genetic legacy, not something that a factory model school can influence.
Maybe I should indulge in some anecdotes. My wife and I are professionals who raised our kids in the city of Grand Rapids and our 3 kids went to City, a school that routinely shows up in Michigan's top whatever. We knew a half dozen other professionals whose kids went to City. The kids were smarter than the teachers and it shows in the outcomes.
Our three kids, perfumed with an engineering BS acquired in 3 years, 3 masters degrees, Caltech, George Mason, a Fulbright, could not find jobs in Michigan, so off they go and with them our grandkids who live in peaceful, supportive households with high expectations for attainment and where they will raise the MEAPs of distant states.
Another colleague has 6 kids, two from his first marriage who did not attain much and who remain in Michigan. The other 4 kids, Yale, Harvard, a Rhoades scholar, commentator on NPR, Rice University, Ford Foundation-all settled around NYC.
Another couple with 3 kids, one a lawyer, another an engineer, both in distant states, the one child seems uninterested, finished HS but barely, and in his 30s remains at home.
And so it goes. Repeat this pattern for 2 generations, and soon enough, MIchiganders float in the shallow end of the IQ gene pool. And meaningless measurements of how well the PS bolt useless facts onto weaker raw material becomes noticeable.

Matt
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 8:32am

I suspect there is something to what you say. When a given economy is less vibrant it will always lose many of its most talented individuals to areas of greater opportunity. This isn't called a Brain Drain for nothing. I'd be the first to admit that raw intelligence is only part of what leads to to a successful life in general along with general grit and determination, again the people who are most prone to pick themselves up and leave . The implications are what they are but definitely not PC. I'd guess it takes decades to over come this kind of a hit.

Leon Hulett
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 11:02am

I don't see that this comparison is helpful or useful.

Comparisons to NAEP or recommendations based on NAEP, did not result in improvements 20 years ago, in 2003 or more recently.

Here is a better comparison that leads to an immediate effective solution.

In Michigan does each student have a dictionary that they know how to use, to properly define each new word they come to in reading or listening, or want to use in writing or speaking?

The definition of Reading in Michigan basically says, "constructing meaning." If the child, or adult, understands the words, this is a simple and enjoyable task. If the child does not, "What happens?" When he is reading outloud he will hesitate or stumble or substitute a word or show other signs of discomfort and non-comprehension. I expect this is just as true when he or she reads silently.

When the words are understood, this does not happen. If the words in that exact text, the student stumbled on, are now defined seconds later, with a dictionary, he can then read the the text smoothly, easily, comfortably with full comprehension. I have demonstrated this in schools. In short, he can "construct meaning." If he has the means to define the words, and knows to define the words properly, he can "construct meaning".

The main obstacle to implementing this effective technology in Michigan is the current technology of "Context Clues." The technology of "Context Clues" does not work, it never did. In fact, it is, in my humble opinion, THE primary cause of the horrible reading scores in Michigan since it was implemented in the early 1970's.

Prior to that time the term "context clues" had an entirely different meaning, that was effective. That research was done by Francis Pleasant Robinson in the 1930's, 40's during WWII, 50's and 60's at Ohio State University. That technology was published in the various editions of his books called, "Effective Study." I am not advocating for them.

I am advocating for kids, so they can properly define the words they do encounter, so they can read with full comprehension, and in such a way that they can read right now.

This is a very simple technology. It is very effective.

I just looked up the international test on Reading, the PISA. It says that the Unites States is 24th in the 70 some countries they test in. So comparisons with the NAEP to other states is like comparing to states that are on the average 24th in the world. Why bother with such a comparison? It reminds me of a presentation I did at a local school years ago. They were comparing themselves, in Reading, with the other schools they competed with in athletics. I innocently asked, "Why don't you compare yourself to the best academic school in this District? " They said, that was absurd. They felt they could never compete with the school that was the tops in that little District, let alone the whole state of Michigan.

At least today, they are now comparing themselves to the other schools in Michigan. I encourage folks to NOT make this same mistake. Do not compare our students in Michigan to Tennessee or Massachusetts. Compare them to a student that can read out loud smoothly and easily with full comprehension. If this student knows the words he will read silently the same way, with full comprehension.

Each student should have their own dictionary. Each student should know how to use that dictionary properly. Each student should be able to read out loud smoothly, quickly and easily, with full comprehension, even in the First Grade. Each student should NEVER, ever be taught to use "context clues" to define all of the full and exact meanings of words they will encounter when they read, write, listen or speak.

"Understanding means to have a clear and true idea or notion of something, or full and exact knowledge of something." If the student does not have that, they will stumble, they will NOT understand. They will fail on the NAEP, on the MAEP, on the ACT, on SAT, and on the PISA. They will will fail on the entrance exams for Universities. And when it comes time to apply it to each and everything they do in life? You tell me.

Leon

Leon Hulett
Wed, 04/11/2018 - 11:05am

I don't see that this comparison is helpful or useful.

Comparisons to NAEP or recommendations based on NAEP, did not result in improvements 20 years ago, in 2003 or more recently.

Here is a better comparison that leads to an immediate effective solution.

In Michigan does each student have a dictionary that they know how to use, to properly define each new word they come to in reading or listening, or want to use in writing or speaking?

The definition of Reading in Michigan basically says, "constructing meaning." If the child, or adult, understands the words, this is a simple and enjoyable task. If the child does not, "What happens?" When he is reading outloud he will hesitate or stumble or substitute a word or show other signs of discomfort and non-comprehension. I expect this is just as true when he or she reads silently.

When the words are understood, this does not happen. If the words in that exact text, the student stumbled on, are now defined seconds later, with a dictionary, he can then read the the text smoothly, easily, comfortably with full comprehension. I have demonstrated this in schools. In short, he can "construct meaning." If he has the means to define the words, and knows to define the words properly, he can "construct meaning".

The main obstacle to implementing this effective technology in Michigan is the current technology of "Context Clues." The technology of "Context Clues" does not work, it never did. In fact, it is, in my humble opinion, THE primary cause of the horrible reading scores in Michigan since it was implemented in the early 1970's.

Prior to that time the term "context clues" had an entirely different meaning, that was effective. That research was done by Francis Pleasant Robinson in the 1930's, 40's during WWII, 50's and 60's at Ohio State University. That technology was published in the various editions of his books called, "Effective Study." I am not advocating for them.

I am advocating for kids, so they can properly define the words they do encounter, so they can read with full comprehension, and in such a way that they can read right now.

This is a very simple technology. It is very effective.

I just looked up the international test on Reading, the PISA. It says that the Unites States is 24th in the 70 some countries they test in. So comparisons with the NAEP to other states is like comparing to states that are on the average 24th in the world. Why bother with such a comparison? It reminds me of a presentation I did at a local school years ago. They were comparing themselves, in Reading, with the other schools they competed with in athletics. I innocently asked, "Why don't you compare yourself to the best academic school in this District? " They said, that was absurd. They felt they could never compete with the school that was the tops in that little District, let alone the whole state of Michigan.

At least today, they are now comparing themselves to the other schools in Michigan. I encourage folks to NOT make this same mistake. Do not compare our students in Michigan to Tennessee or Massachusetts. Compare them to a student that can read out loud smoothly and easily with full comprehension. If this student knows the words he will read silently the same way, with full comprehension.

Each student should have their own dictionary. Each student should know how to use that dictionary properly. Each student should be able to read out loud smoothly, quickly and easily, with full comprehension, even in the First Grade. Each student should NEVER, ever be taught to use "context clues" to define all of the full and exact meanings of words they will encounter when they read, write, listen or speak.

"Understanding means to have a clear and true idea or notion of something, or full and exact knowledge of something." If the student does not have that, they will stumble, they will NOT understand. They will fail on the NAEP, on the MAEP, on the ACT, on SAT, and on the PISA. They will will fail on the entrance exams for Universities. And when it comes time to apply it to each and everything they do in life? You tell me.

Leon