Local districts can give additional local test to assess performance

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Lance Cohen
Capital News Service

LANSING – To better assess students’ learning, new legislation will go into effect in October giving local schools districts the option to test them in addition to the annual M-STEP statewide assessment.

The new program will ease concerns that the M-STEP, administered in the spring, does not help students improve their performance during the year, said Michigan Department of Education Spokesperson Jan Ellis.

“The benchmark exams are offered for grades K-8, and it is up to each individual district if they would like to use them,” Ellis said. “It is free for all K-2 programs across the state and districts that are interested in purchasing the benchmark exams for grades 3-8 will be reimbursed by the state.”

The new optional tests follows a year of lackluster performance on the annual M-STEP, which tests proficiency in mathematics, English Language Arts, social studies and science. Students showed modest gains in some subjects, but overall fell short of educators’ hopes.

Ellis said unsatisfactory scores may be a result of a disconnect between statewide standards and local curricula. If schools aren’t teaching what the state is testing, scores will reflect that, she said.

“The purpose of the M-STEP is to serve as a meaningful snapshot of the year and test what knowledge students have gained in this time,” Ellis said. “Discrepancies in testing may arise if the state curriculum and what is being taught at the local level isn’t aligned.”

The most recent scores come several years into a major investment in early childhood programs that state officials hope will improve test results.

In hopes of bringing Michigan from the 36th ranked state in education to a top 10 education state within the next decade, lawmakers made a big push to increase spending to support schools.  Over the past four years, Michigan invested nearly $1 billion into the Great Start Readiness Program to increase literacy. This investment surpassed previous contributions which only granted $100 million to this program in 2012.

A main goal of this program is to provide 4-year-old students with a high-quality preschool program. Funds have also been used to add instructional time grants that support districts in providing additional literacy support to struggling students. Literacy coaches were also hired in intermediate school districts across the state. New resources and training were developed to support teachers assist students in developing new literacy learning techniques especially among English learners, students with disabilities and struggling readers.

At the same time, the Michigan Department of Education set aside $20 million to give students in grades K-3 additional support in reading.

Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said she supports the new optional testing plan. One of the biggest problems with the M-STEP  is the long wait time between when students take the test and when they receive the results, she said.

“The M-STEP is given in the spring, however we don’t receive the results until the fall,” Smith said. “At that point students are no longer in the same classroom and there is nothing the teacher can do to improve their students results.”

While M-STEP serves its goal as measuring a student’s proficiency, it fails to encompass other areas of learning including growth, Smith said.

“M-STEP serves as an asset to measure a student’s proficiency in math and English language arts, but it doesn’t serve as a good tool to assess growth in the classroom,” Smith said.

A legislative report from the state will be released in February describing how districts across the state use the new optional exams and what the results show.