Students who don’t speak English fare poorly on M-Step

By STEPHANIE HERNANDEZ McGAVIN

Capital News Service

LANSING — The Michigan Student Test of Education Progress (M-Step) introduced last spring was difficult for most students, according to their test scores, especially for one group: English-learners.

The M-Step’s first results were low, with 3rd grade English language arts showing the highest proportion of student proficiency at only 50 percent.

It only got worse for English-learners, said Steven Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

“The M-Step last year was given to students that didn’t know English,” Cook said. “Guess how they did on the M-Step? They all failed.”

The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school employees.

Stacy Tanner, communications coordinator and special interest group leader for K-12 schools at Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said all English-learners not only have to take the M-Step, but also the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) to test English proficiency.

Like most standardized tests, Tanner said, students can’t really study for them, especially if they’re in a new format.

Tanner, also a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) in the Novi Community School District, said the new critical thinking element of the M-Step was challenging even to native speakers.

But she also said the challenge is good for both students and teachers as it asks students to explain how they think instead of telling them what to think. Teachers have to change how they teach and begin to ask students to analyze and evaluate their own thinking, Tanner said, which is especially difficult for English-learners.

“All of the kids have struggled with it because it’s a brand-new test. The format is different and it’s causing kids to think about things differently,” Tanner said. “The problem with our English-learners is being able to talk about that.”

Shereen Tabrizi, the special populations unit manager at the Department of Education, said the requirement for all English-learners to take the M-Step and WIDA is meant to benefit them.

“The legislation says you have to take the test regardless of language skills,” Tabrizi said. “It sounds harsh, but the intent is to make us all accountable for those students.”

State ESL funding and standards, as well as free ESL teacher training through the department, help teachers and make them more responsible for their students, Tabrizi said.

Although the M-Step scores of English-learners do affect the overall school performance, Tabrizi said, the department can put results into subgroups, separating English-learners and native speakers to study their progress separately or comparatively.

Deb Neddo, the coordinator of migrant, English-learner and homeless student services for the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, said the district works with counties including Grand Traverse, Charlevoix, Leelanau and Manistee to serve migrants there.

She said 75 percent of the district’s migrant students are English-learners and required to take the WIDA and M-Step if they’re in town during the annual assessment window.

That means they might not be assessed if they’re not in Michigan at that time.

“It depends on which migrant stream the students are in,” Neddo said. “We have some students that stay all year and some students that are here for fall only, for apples, and some come in the spring and stay through with the strawberries.”

Since the annual WIDA exam takes place from February to March, migrant students don’t usually take them. Neddo said many more students take the M-Step in the spring.

Neddo said migrant English-learners review the same preparation for M-Step as other students, and ESL teachers work with them in reading and writing.

The Department of Education’s Tabrizi said all English-learners had been making progress with the former Michigan standardized test and said she hopes to see that continue with the M-Step.