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Here's what we do and don't know about standardized tests in Michigan schools this year

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Many Michigan students will take some type of standardized test this school year, despite the pandemic. But there’s a lot that’s still unclear.

Michigan's third-through-eighth graders usually take a statewide assessment, the M-STEP, every year. M-STEP was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this school year has been anything but typical, and Michigan and some other states again sought standardized testing waivers from the federal government.

The Biden Administration denied that. But it is offering states some as-yet-undetermined amount of “flexibility” – from what tests schools can administer and when, to what the scores will be used for.

State Superintendent Michael Rice said this week that he’ll pursue that flexibility. The U.S. Department of Education has suggested that states can submit requests for waivers from accountability and school identification requirements included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Those include everything from public data on school test scores, to teacher evaluations.

“What USED basically said was that it is open to considerations on the accountability side and a little less open on the assessment side,” Rice said.

Rice has also suggested that, instead of using statewide summative assessments like the M-STEP, local school districts should be able to administer benchmark assessments to gather data on student performance.

“A majority of Michigan students have received inconsistent to no instruction in an in-person format during the 2020-21 school year, and when these students return to in-person instruction, the focus should be on teaching and learning and ensuring social and emotional wellness rather than on preparing for and taking state summative assessments,” the Michigan Department of Education said in a statement this week.

A response to Michigan’s waiver request is still pending. In light of that, “Until a waiver or other flexibility is granted, MDE will continue to prepare for the administration of the state’s M-STEP assessments,” the department said.

Robert McCann, head of the K-Twelve Alliance of Michigan, supported the state’s initial request to waive all standardized testing requirements this year, calling them “a waste of time.”

“Standardized testing is meant as a measure of whether students performed what we would expect them to in school over the past year,” McCann said. “But the reality is we know they aren't performing where we would expect them to, because this hasn't been a typical school year.

The Biden Administration, and some other education advocates, have argued the need for standardized testing is greater than ever this year. But the administration said that it’s about “supporting the use of assessment data as a source of information for parents and educators to target resources and support, rather than for accountability purposes this year.”

“State assessments and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity, identifying student needs, and targeting the resources to address them,” the U.S. Department of Education said in a communication to school districts this week.

But, the Department added: “The Department also recognizes that individual states may need additional assessment flexibility based on the specific circumstances across or within the state. ED is prepared to work with states to address their individual needs and conditions while ensuring the maximum available statewide data to inform the targeting of resources and support.”

This all leaves a lot of up in the air for now. The Michigan Department of Education said the administration’s announcement this week “is the beginning of a new part of the process that could take some time.” In the meantime, MDE said, it “will continue to prepare for the administration of the state’s M-STEP assessments,” which usually begin in April.

Robert McCann of the K-12 Alliance agrees that local schools should be allowed to administer their own versions of assessments, and the results for this school year should absolutely not be used punitively.

We have more questions than answers, but we're hoping that we can get as much flexibility as possible on this,” McCann said. “Because asking a rigid set of questions designed for a typical school year that the students haven't been through would be a complete waste of time at this point.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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