Skip to main content

More Students In Classrooms This Year Means Greater Participation on State Tests

LANSING – With more students learning in the classroom this spring, over 96 percent of students took the M-STEP state assessments this year compared to 70 percent last year, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) reported today.

The COVID-19 pandemic reduced in-person learning in schools across the state in the spring of 2020 and during the 2020-21 school year. In the summer of 2020, to track student achievement during the pandemic, State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice recommended to the legislature the requirement that all districts administer and report benchmark assessment results in their local communities and to the state, a recommendation passed by the state legislature and signed into law by the governor.

At the same time, MDE requested and received a blanket waiver from administering state assessments and the school index accountability system in 2020 by the U.S. Department of Education (USED). In 2021, USED approved MDE’s waiver request associated with the school index accountability system, but denied MDE’s request to set aside state assessments, in spite of very high COVID-19 numbers in the winter and spring of 2021.

The accountability waiver last year set aside, among others, the federal requirement to test 95 percent of all students. Schools administered the M-STEP to those students able to come to school during the spring 2021 testing window, marked by significant parent concerns about elevated COVID-19 numbers. As a result, Michigan had a 70 percent participation rate.

“It’s great to see higher participation rates this year, one more indication that higher percentages of parents, students, and staff are comfortable in schools and that we are turning the corner relative to the pandemic,” said Dr. Rice. “It’s a positive sign to see more children in school on a regular basis, where they are able to interact with one another and their teachers to help them grow, learn, and thrive in a wide range of ways.”

A consequence of more students assessed this year after two years of disrupted learning is an increase in third grade students whose scores on the state’s English language arts assessment make them more likely to be identified for being retained in third grade next year.

The state’s Read by Grade Three law requires third grade students who score a grade level or more behind on the English language arts M-STEP to be held back in third grade the following year, with some exceptions allowed after consultation among the identified students’ parents, teachers, and administrators.

The number of third grade students taking the state’s English language arts assessment rose from 71.2 percent last year to 98 percent this year, with greater participation in low-income school districts. Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) is conducting a five-year study on how Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law is being implemented across the state and its impacts on students and educators.

“In prior years, there have been wide disparities in retention eligibility rates across students, with Black, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged students substantially more likely to score below a 1252 on the ELA M-STEP and thus be eligible for retention under the Read by Grade Three law,” said Dr. Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC. “Moreover, students who are enrolled in districts that have historically scored the lowest on M-STEPs were more likely to be eligible for retention.

“Given that the pandemic has resulted in inequitable opportunities for students to learn, we should expect these patterns to stay the same or widen during the 2021-22 school year,” Dr. Strunk added. “This presents a major equity concern and highlights the need for increased resources and supports for precisely those students and districts that are struggling the most.”

This year, the parents of 5,660 (5.8 percent) Michigan third graders are getting letters from the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI) saying that their child is at or below grade level and identified for grade retention. That compares to 3,661 third grade students (4.8 percent) identified last year.

“Retention decisions should be on a student-by-student basis, in consultation among parents, teachers, and administrators,” Dr. Rice said. “In general, however, the idea that a given score on a state assessment should generate retention makes no sense. Student performance in multiple ways should be considered before a decision to retain a student.”

Dr. Rice noted that educators are more likely to improve reading levels with

  • small class sizes in early elementary schools;
  • strong professional development in the science of reading instruction;
  • student tutoring provided by trained tutors;
  • mentoring;
  • parent and community involvement in students’ daily reading throughout the entire year, not simply the school year, including the provision of books to students over the summer;
  • strong summer school experiences;
  • a longer school year or minimally a balanced calendar that reduces the length of time out of school in the summer;
  • diverse, engaging classroom libraries that permit children to see themselves and others in the literature that they read;
  • a focus on reading and reading proficiency in all subjects, including history, government, and science, which should also be significantly represented in classroom and school libraries;
  • school libraries that are not simply stocked with diverse books but are staffed with trained librarians that work with classes of children inside the libraries and classrooms;
  • strong writing instruction concurrent with reading instruction; and
  • a recognition and addressing of students who process text in atypical ways and may show signs of dyslexia.

The Read by Grade Three law does allow for students identified for retention to be promoted to fourth grade with what the law calls a “good cause exemption.” Within 30 days of receiving a notification letter that a child may be retained, a parent or guardian of the third grader, the child’s third grade teacher, or a coordinator of the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or section 504 plan can apply for the good cause exemption.

Parents can learn more about the Read by Grade Three law here.