What M-STEP scores showed us about Michigan’s education achievement gap

By: - September 17, 2019 10:45 am

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Michigan schools still face a tremendous achievement gap between white students, students of color and economically disadvantaged students, even though overall statewide test scores are on the rise.   

Data from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) shows school districts statewide are making small improvements on the M-STEP, a standardized test given to students in the third through eighth grades. But the results also show that economic and social barriers continue to limit educational growth for marginalized students. 

[Download the data yourself and search here.]


Across the state, about 45% of students in third grade scored proficient or higher in reading. White students scored 53.1% proficient on this portion of the test. For African American students, that figure was over 33 percentage points lower than white students at 19.9%. For Latino students, that figure was 34.1%. And just 31.3% of economically disadvantaged students are reading at proficient levels. 

Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative data

In the first year of the M-STEP, test scores were higher for white students and Latino students, but there has been some improvement in the achievement gap. In 2015, white students scored 58% proficient, Latino students scored 37% proficient and African American students scored 23% proficient. That year, there was a 35 percentage-point difference between the scores of white students and African American students. 

This school year, educators are closely watching the third-grade reading results as the Read by Grade Three law goes into effect in 2020. The law, signed in 2016 by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, will require districts to hold back students who do not meet the reading standards set by the M-STEP standardized test.

As the Advance previously reported, a study done by Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), the MDE strategic research partner, used 2018 M-STEP data to estimate what this reading law could mean for Michigan students, especially marginalized groups.


From the research, an estimated 4.4% of third-grade students will be held back due to non-proficient reading skills. For white students, that drops to an estimated 2.7% retention rate, and for African American students, it could be as high as 10.7% of students required to repeat the third grade. 

Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative data

Students from low-income families also face a higher risk of being held back at an estimated 6.5% retention rate, compared to a 1.5% retention rate for students who are not economically disadvantaged. 

After the 2017-18 school year, fewer than 1% of third-grade students were held back. Of those students who were, 54% were African Americans. 

We implore lawmakers and educators alike to be conscientious of which students will be impacted by this law,” said Alex Rossman, communications director for the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP), a Lansing-based nonpartisan policy institute. “A potential grade retention law sets up future challenges, and creates another barrier to overcome for the students of color or lower income students who are getting held back.”


Rossman said that in order for the third-grade reading law to work, it must be coupled with funding and support.

A 2018 report from the MLPP called out state lawmakers for inequitable policies and budgets for K-12 education.

“To achieve equity, state funding must fully recognize the higher costs of educating children in high-poverty schools, as well as address the barriers children of color encounter from the time of their birth,” wrote Pat Sorenson, senior policy analyst at MLPP.

As for now, school funding is at an impasse as the GOP-led Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer work out the details of next year’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget, including the state School Aid Fund, which provides funding for all public and charter schools in Michigan. 


In a conference report signed last week, the GOP Legislature gives a 2.4% increase in funding for K-12 education, but Whitmer is working to implement a weighted funding model for education. The Advance previously reported that Whitmer’s proposed budget would include a $507 million increase in state education funding, with weighted funding for different types of students based on need. 

The deadline for the budget is Sept. 30.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.