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Detroit district students slide back on M-STEP tests as pandemic challenges linger

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai stands above two students working at a desk, talking with one of them as both students work on an assignment.

District scores on Michigan’s standardized test fell short of pre-pandemic numbers in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, reflecting a trend both across the state and nationally.

Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat

Detroit district students performed slightly below pre-pandemic measures on Michigan’s standardized tests, a result that officials say indicates the impact of the pandemic on student learning and the importance of addressing chronic student absenteeism within the district. 

The percentage of Detroit Public Schools Community District students who achieved grade-level proficiency on the M-STEP exam was down in most grades and subject areas last spring, though there were some promising results.

The district’s latest test scores add new urgency to its long-term reform efforts, which seek to bolster student achievement, test scores and attendance rates. 

Students in all grades performed worse in math: Only 10% of third graders scored proficient or above, six percentage points lower than in 2018-19, the last time students took the test before the pandemic. Among fourth grade students, 5.5% scored proficient or above, down from 10.9% in 2019.

In English, 9% of third grade students scored at or above proficiency, compared with 11.9% in 2019.

One relatively bright spot: 14.2% of seventh graders who took the English component of the M-STEP scored proficient or above, an increase of roughly 1 percentage point from 2019. 

The 2021-22 school year marked the first time since the pandemic began that school districts could accurately compare state test results to past years. During the 2020-21 school year, fewer than 10% of Detroit district students in grades three through eight took the exam. (In the spring of 2020, the M-STEP was canceled due to the pandemic.) 

The overall declines in reading and math proficiency in the Detroit district reflect trends across the state and the country. Statewide this year, M-STEP proficiency rates among third graders declined 5.2 percentage points from 2019 in math and 3.5 points in English.

Historically, Detroit has fared significantly worse on standardized tests than the state or national average. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam – often referred to as “the nation’s report card” — the Detroit district’s fourth graders performed the worst of any urban area in the country in 2019, despite significant improvement from the previous test in 2017.

With student test participation returning to normal levels, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti called the 2021-22 school year a “baseline year” for measuring students’ performance against grade-level standards after the pandemic.

“Our students have not taken a meaningful and required national or state assessment since 2018-19,” Vitti said. “In person teaching and learning and daily student attendance matters. It can change students’ lives for the better.”

Arlyssa Heard, a parent organizer with grassroots education access organization 482Forward, and a Detroit district parent, said she’s cautious about reading too much into the latest M-STEP scores, or standardized tests in general.

“Test scores have never really proved anything other than a kid either answered the question right or wrong,” Heard said. “In my opinion, it doesn’t really measure where a kid is, especially if you have a child like mine who used to struggle when it comes to test taking.”

Behind the test results she said, are students continuing to deal with the toll of the pandemic in their everyday lives.

“Just because people are vaccinated, boosted or wearing masks and we know how to navigate COVID-19 … it doesn’t mean that everything is fine.”

Vitti said he’s “confident” the district can see improvement in student academic and testing performance as long as the district can address chronic student absenteeism, which surged during the pandemic. During 2021-22, 77% of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% of school days or more. That was up from 62% before the pandemic.

That, coupled with COVID-related school shutdowns, quarantining guidance, and repeated shifts to online learning, most likely played a role in student test performance, Vitti said.

Vitti said there is a “profound difference” in student performance against grade-level standards depending on how many days students missed, whether it’s “less than 9 days of school, between 9-18, and 18 or more.”

New district initiatives to reduce absenteeism include beefing up its school attendance teams, collaborating with community partners on intervention plans, and continuing to send out its attendance agents to target groups of students around the city based on geographic patterns in absenteeism.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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