Michigan officials will soon release standardized test results, and the data will likely tell us what we’ve witnessed during the last 18 months: Pandemic learning has hurt students’ academic progress.
We already know this from what local educators have seen in the classroom, from national assessment results, and from reports from educators. What they’ve told us: Student engagement was down, chronic absenteeism was up, and more young people struggled with emotional and mental challenges.
The results, to be released by the Michigan Department of Education, will provide the first statewide look at how well students have met academic expectations since March 2020, when the pandemic first began to disrupt learning. Students took the exams that are part of the M-STEP in the spring.
But the results come with big limitations that will make it difficult to make strong comparisons with previous years. Here, we break down what to expect, what the results will tell us and what they won’t, and explain why they’ll be difficult to analyze.
Who took the exam?
It is all but certain that the number of students who took the M-STEP in the spring was down — likely by large numbers in some districts — than in previous years. That’s largely because the exam could not be given remotely and those learning online had to be present inside a school building to take the test. The State Board of Education, which oversees the state education department, adopted a resolution that said students learning remotely did not have to go into a school building to take the exam.
So who didn’t get tested? Largely, “it is economically disadvantaged, Black students, students with disabilities are the three biggest groups not testing,” said Marianne Perie, a testing expert who advises states on assessments. “Those groups also tend to be lower scoring.
“If anything, we’re saying to some of our state leaders, your scores may be even worse than what this looks like, because you don’t have some of those students in there.”
In a typical year, federal rules require 95% of students to be tested across all subjects and grades. But that rule was relaxed last school year. And it’s a good thing, considering other states have also seen their participation rates drop.
If Michigan’s participation rates are anything like other states, only about 70% of students took the exams, said Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Initiative Collaborative at Michigan State University. The Department of Education is expected to release participation rates at the same time as test scores.
“If those patterns hold in Michigan … we want to think about what the test scores would have been if everyone took the test,” Strunk said.
In Colorado, the participation rates ranged from 60% to 76%. In Georgia, the rates ranged from 60% to 80%. And in Delaware, 60% of students took the exams in grades 3-8.
The expected decline in test takers is the reason Strunk cautions against comparing districts with each other. There might be wide disparities in participation rates from district to district, Strunk said.
Brace yourself for disappointing results
We don’t know yet how good or bad the results will be in Michigan. But other states that have already released their own test scores provide a grim preview. In Colorado, Indiana, and Tennessee, student scores declined across the board. Math was particularly difficult for students.
In all three states, the drops were particularly steep for groups that historically have struggled — Black and Hispanic students, as well as students from low-income homes.
Similar trends are playing out nationwide. Chalkbeat reported in July that the pandemic slowed progress in math and reading for millions of U.S. students who took the NWEA exam, a national exam that measures progress from the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. The results also show the pandemic widened pre-pandemic test score gaps in race and economic status.
A separate analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, based on a different exam, found similar trends. White students, for example, fell four months behind where they should have been in math while Black and Latino students were six months behind, widening an already concerning difference in achievement.
Declines in test scores don’t mean that students didn’t learn, said Strunk. Some of the most important achievements can’t be measured on standardized tests, she said.
“There is a big argument that kids learned resilience. Kids learned flexibility. There’s no way to know that other than through anecdotes and principals’ reports,” said Strunk. “There’s a conversation to be had around what we think is more important for kids to learn.”
State exams were canceled in 2020 because of the emerging pandemic. In 2019 in Michigan, results showed a small amount of promise: The number of students passing the exams either inched up or declined at a slower pace than in previous years.
Parent reports will be useful
The M-STEP results may be difficult to analyze, but there is one feature that will benefit parents: the individual reports they’ll get for their children who took the exam.
Those reports will help parents understand which areas their children did well on and where their child struggled.
“As a parent of a kid who will be getting an individual M-STEP score, I can learn a lot,” Strunk said. “I should be able to tell if my child was at or above grade level. I should be able to see how my student tested two years ago and how that trajectory has changed over time.”
Having that information can help parents better advocate for their children’s education needs, she said.
A department spokesman said parents should receive those reports in September.
High stakes decisions
Despite the challenges that come with this exam, the results are still being used to make important decisions.
One of the biggest will affect students who were third graders last year, took the exam, and had scores in English language arts that indicate they are more than a year behind grade level in reading.
The state’s Read by Grade Three law requires that those third graders who didn’t meet the law’s expectations be held back a grade. There are plenty of exemptions that can prevent retention, and many school leaders said they would use those exemptions liberally because they oppose holding students back during a pandemic.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some students who end up repeating the third grade because of their reading scores.
Earlier this year, the state board passed a resolution urging lawmakers to rescind the retention rule as well as rules requiring teacher evaluations be tied to test scores, and a law requiring schools receive letter grades based largely on test performance. The Legislature did not address either of the issues.
“We are going to have high stakes accountability requirements associated with [the exams], with small numbers and uneven numbers of our young people testing,” State Superintendent Michael Rice said at the time. “Our legislature really needs to move and move expeditiously on this.”