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Students in COVID-weary Michigan schools must take M-STEP, feds say

Testing
Michigan school leaders didn’t want to give the M-STEP amid a continuing pandemic. Federal officials on Tuesday said the state must give it, anyway. (Shutterstock)

Michigan students must take the state’s federally-mandated standardized test, the M-STEP, despite the pandemic.

Late Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education informed the Michigan Department of Education that the state’s plea to shelve the test for the year had been denied.

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As a result, Michigan students, many of whom have lurched between online learning and facemask-filled classrooms this school year, will take the test at some point over the next month. Some testing will begin as early as Monday.

“This is beyond disappointing. It's shameful,” Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, said in a statement. “USED (the U.S. education department) had an opportunity to do the right thing for the right reasons… Michigan citizens, educators and parents will get virtually no useful and actionable information from this year’s state tests.”

Just how many students will take the test, though, is uncertain.

While mandating that the tests be given as usual, federal officials eliminated for this year a rule that 95 percent of students must take the exam. It’s likely that many Michigan students who are learning remotely will not take the test, which must be administered in-person in a school.

The state education department informed school districts that it “does not support requiring otherwise remote or virtual students to be brought into school solely for the purpose of state assessment,” according to an MDE statement released Tuesday. 

“Districts will have to offer remote or virtual students the opportunity to come into school to take the appropriate state summative assessments. However, those remote-only students will not be required to come into school for the sole purpose of taking the assessments.”

The federally mandated tests include the M-STEP for Michigan students in grades 3-8, PSAT for grades 8 and 9; the MME including the SAT for 11th graders, and specialized tests for special education students and English language learners.

The tests allow cross-school comparisons of student achievement, as well as offering clues over time as to whether schools are lagging or improving in academics. It is also used for accountability purposes for schools where scores are lagging, and is a metric used in teacher evaluations.

The federal Department of Education requires all states to have a test similar to M-STEP.

It is normally administered in the spring, but was shelved last year because of the pandemic. Michigan asked for the test to be waived again this year, arguing that with learning varying so much between schools and even between classmates, the scores would be useless.

In denying Michigan’s request, Ian Rosenbaum, deputy U.S. assistant secretary for policy and programs, said “obtaining data on student learning includes high-quality statewide assessments, which can help identify where opportunity gaps are persistent and have been exacerbated – particularly during the pandemic – and, along with other data, can help states direct resources and support to close those gaps.”

In a statement after the waiver denial, State Superintendent Michael Rice blasted federal officials, contending they did not understand conditions in COVID-weary classrooms.

COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan schools have jumped 47 percent in two weeks. Some schools that only recently reopened classrooms have moved back temporarily to fully remote learning.

“Michigan has the highest rates of recent COVID-19 cases and recent cases per 100,000 in the nation at the moment,” Rice said in the statement. “With its decision today to deny Michigan’s request to waive M-STEP testing in the midst of the pandemic, USED continues to demonstrate its disconnect from conditions in public schools in Michigan and across the country.”

Rice went on: “Is it any wonder that educators are leaving the profession when, in a pandemic, USED insists that Michigan use time, which should be dedicated to children’s social, emotional, and academic growth, to test a portion of its students to generate data that will inform precisely nothing about our children’s needs that we won’t already know more substantially and quickly with benchmark assessments this year?”

Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based school research and advocacy organization, argued the opposite: that the once-in-a-century pandemic makes it even more important to test student achievement.

“Especially for Michigan’s low-income and other underserved students, we need every tool possible to understand the impact of COVID-19 and how to support them in the near-term and for the next few years to ensure they not only catch up but accelerate,” Education Trust-Midwest spokesperson Jennifer Mrozowski said in a statement.  

“The U.S. Department of Education today took an important step in ensuring that Michigan parents, educators and policymakers will have critical data to better understand the impact of this unprecedented period of unfinished learning.”

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