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Higher reading scores predicted for Detroit’s third-graders, but superintendent warns ‘a lot can happen’ before final exams

Halfway through his first school year as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti says the district’s youngest students are moving in the right direction in reading — but he warned not to expect improvements in math this year.

Vitti offered the insight during a meeting Monday of the school board’s academic committee, where he gave one of the first reports from the district about the status of students’ learning since he took the job in May.

Based on the district’s i-Ready testing, which the district is using to check the reading skills of students in kindergarten through third grade, Vitti told board members that he predicted that 17 percent of third-graders would be considered proficient in reading at the end of the school year — though he cautioned that the results are far from final.

“Right now, if all things stay the same based on where students are right now at mid-year, 17 percent of our students should be at or above grade level in third grade,” Vitti said. “Now, this is all preliminary, because a lot can happen between now and the end of the year.”

He said despite the uncertainty, the data does tell the district that things are “moving in the right direction.”

Indeed, just 10 percent of last year’s third-graders scored high enough on last year’s state test, known as M-STEP, to be considered proficient in reading.

But even if this year’s third-graders make the gains that Vitti is predicting, the district will still be far from getting all students to grade level — a goal that becomes high-stakes starting in the 2019-20 school year. That’s when a looming state law will begin requiring the district to hold back third graders who do not meet the state’s reading standards.

According to Vitti’s presentation at the board meeting, the first round of i-Ready scores suggest that most students are on track to learn a year’s worth of new skills this year — and also remain far behind where they should ideally be for their age.

“Our challenge obviously is that the majority of our students are not at grade level, so although a year’s growth is impressive and should be expected, that has not always been the case … and we need to see double or triple that improvement in the years to come,” Vitti told Chalkbeat.

Vitti also cautioned board members not to expect gains for older students or in math this year, emphasizing that little has changed in the way students are being taught. Since he joined the district in May, he has often said that he didn’t have enough time to make significant changes to curriculum or instruction inside classrooms this year but would be implementing major changes starting in September

“If we don’t change the inputs, we won’t change the outputs,” Vitti told the board members. “The inputs are curriculum, training, and understanding the set of standards, so it’s not surprising that we’re staying flat. I’m confident that next school year … we will see an increase in student performance across the district.”

Vitti’s complete presentation, which includes details about how students at individual schools fared this year on i-Ready and other student tracking exams, is below.