M-STEP results show learning decline during pandemic, thousands of 3rd graders could be held back

By: - August 31, 2021 4:24 pm

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After another year of disrupted learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan student state assessment scores from this spring declined from the last time students were given statewide assessments in spring 2019, according to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).

According to the 2021 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) results released Tuesday, Michigan students appeared to make “less than normal progress” towards learning goals and the rate of learning appeared to be slower than in a typical pre-pandemic school year.

“In spite of the extraordinary efforts of educators, support staff, school leaders, parents, the broader community and students themselves, the disruption of the pandemic has inevitably resulted in unfinished learning for many of our children,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice.

Compared to 2019, the percentages of students who scored proficient or above in English-language arts (ELA), math, and social studies declined in all grades other than 8th and 11th grades.

Adam Zemke, president of the education advocacy group Launch Michigan, said he is “disappointed, but not surprised” by the M-STEP results and the state needs to take more action for student success. 

“We knew Michigan students were hurt by COVID-19, and these results are a first step toward quantifying all that was lost,” Zemke said. “But pandemic aside … there is a deeper, more fundamental set of issues at play. Our state needs to reimagine the way the three pillars of our educational system — performance, funding and accountability — are structured to work together.”

Rice requested in January to waive the federal requirement to administer the state’s standardized test during the pandemic. However, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) denied the request. 

The state made the request in part to maximize student learning time, which had been adversely affected during the pandemic, and the 2020-21 school year test results show that COVID-19 likely had an effect on students’ learning loss. 

But not all students took the test. Although it was required that local school districts administer the test, the M-STEP was made optional for students to take depending on parents’ beliefs about how safe it was for their students to take the assessment at school. 

During the 2019-20 school year, then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos granted Michigan federal waivers for the M-STEP and SAT exams. DeVos also canceled the National Assessment of Educational Progress in November 2020 due to the pandemic.

M-STEP scores chart

Because students did not take the M-STEP in the 2020 school year and the percentages of students who took the ELA and math M-STEP tests this year ranged by grade and subject, Rice cautions that comparisons to previous years’ scores would be difficult. 

“The 2020-21 school year was such an uneven year with high health risks for students and staff, inconsistent technology, and variations in teaching and learning across the state,” Rice said. “Any analysis of M-STEP results must factor in low participation rates in state testing.”

Additionally, students who took the state assessments were more likely to be from districts that offered in-person or hybrid learning and less likely to be students of color, economically disadvantaged students or English learners.

Therefore, any change in achievement gaps will be difficult to accurately track with the current state assessment results. 

Read by Grade Three law

The first group of third grade students potentially affected by the state’s Read by Grade Three retention law took the M-STEP this past spring. 

The controversial retention law, signed in 2016 by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, states public schools are required to hold back all students who fail to meet a certain reading proficiency level based on modified results of the state’s standardized test.

According to the results, 4.8% of the tested third-grade students — 3,661 students — were identified as being eligible for retention based on their scores. 

However, only about 71% of third-grade students took the ELA M-STEP test this year.

The limited results showed wide disparities in retention eligibility rates by ethnicity, with African American third grade students the most likely to be identified for retention.

“Districts are encouraged to dig into their data at the school and district levels to better understand and address gaps,” Rice said.

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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.

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