By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan is having a hard time figuring out how to assess its grade-school students.
Beginning in March, third through eighth and 11th graders will take the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP — the third version of the statewide assessment in as many years. And the Michigan Department of Education says this test is just a stopgap, to be replaced next year.
The testing confusion is part of the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards, a voluntary set of national standards developed cooperatively by state governments and implemented in 46 states, including Michigan, which adopted them in 2010.
Many experts say the Common Core places a welcome value on critical thinking skills. But the standards have drawn criticism both from people who fear big-government control over education and from educators and parents pushing back against what they view as an over-reliance on high-stakes standardized tests.
The M-STEP is the Michigan education department’s attempt to align its grade-school test with Common Core standards while meeting ambiguous legislative requirements that resulted last year in abandoning a different assessment, called “Smarter Balanced,” that was developed specifically to address the Common Core.
But the M-STEP was adapted from the long-used MEAP test, versions of which were used in the previous two years, and doesn’t do what it needs to, critics argue.
“You’ve got the legislature who, in all their wisdom, took the MEAP test and said, ‘OK we’re going to re-work it, how hard can this be?’ ” said Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association.
But the test, Cook said, “has been thrown into a blender on high and doesn’t look anything like it’s aligned with the Common Core. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee and supported dropping the Smarter Balanced Assessment last year, declined to comment on the introduction of the M-STEP this year.
Legislative and some parental concerns about the Common Core stem from confusion about what the standards represent, said Bill DiSessa, a public communications officer for the Michigan Department of Education.
States have not been forced to adopt the standards, he said, and local districts have flexibility in how to reach them.
“Michigan is a local control state for education, and the districts make the curriculum decisions,” DiSessa said. “What we have here with the common core, with the M-STEP, is a set of standards.”
The rush to come up with an alternative test after the legislature scrapped the Smarter Balanced assessment last year has stressed out some school administrators and parents — some of whom are opting their children out of the M-STEP test.
In an example of anxiety about the test, third-grade parents at a Detroit elementary school received a letter from administrators warning their child would be suspended if the parents did not attend a second informational meeting about the M-STEP. Administrators have since assured parents that they would set meeting times that work for everyone.
“Can you say crazy?” said Karen Braun, who writes the content for the education watchdog site Stop Common Core Michigan. “That’s just ludicrous, that the child would be suspended if the parent doesn’t show up.”
Braun and state officials said there is confusion about parents’ rights in opting their children out of the test.
“Parents have been intimidated and told that opting out of the test is not a viable option – which it absolutely is,” Braun said.
DiSessa agreed that parents can opt their children out, but suggested that doing so could hurt their school.
“If districts don’t participate in assessments this year there will be accountability consequences,” DiSessa said, adding that Michigan is still negotiating with the U.S Department of Education as to what those consequences would be.
Critics of the M-STEP wonder what informational value it will provide.
“This test, it’s a one-year, one-time thing,” Braun said. “I just don’t know what we’re going to get from it.”
Cook agreed, saying the one-time test would not be useful in comparing Michigan students’ performance with other states.
“There was testimony in front of the House Education Committee and that testimony was: Stop. Let’s look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and what we hope to gain by the addition of yet another test,” Cook said.
In 2016, Cook said, Michigan can look forward to yet another test, but nobody knows yet what that one will look like.
By CAITLIN McARTHUR