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Many Michigan students got lower M-STEP test scores during COVID, but not all students took the test

test with bubble answers
Adobe Stock

The Michigan Department of Education released scores for its M-STEP standardized test, a statewide exam taken by third through eighth and eleventh grade students. The test was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

These newest scores show a drop in proficiency across most subjects from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-2021 school year.

Students in 8th and 11th grade saw improvements in English language arts, or ELA, with 63.6% of 8th grade test takers showing proficiency in 2021 as opposed to 61.9% in 2019, and 56.6% of 11th graders showing proficiency in 2021 compared to 55.3% in 2019. Both math and social studies saw a decrease in proficiency across all grade levels, and there was no data for science testing for the 2018-2019 school year.

Some of the biggest decreases in proficiency were in math: the percentage of students who were proficient in math in the fourth through sixth as well as eighth grades dropped over 5%. 

mstep results for 2021 compared to 2019
Credit Michigan Department of Education
Test scores from the 2018-19 school year compared to those from the 2020-21 school year. M-STEP exams were canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

State superintendent Michael Rice said comparisons between 2019 and 2021 are difficult, due to a variety of mitigating factors brought on by the pandemic.

"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," he said. "Any analysis of M-STEP results must factor in low participation rates in state testing."

According to the MDE, fewer than 75% of students actually took the exam, with some subjects seeing as little as 50% participation. Due to this, the MDE said the data "should be used with caution and comparing it to previous years' data is not advisable."

Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, agrees with Rice's assessment. 

"When you look at a report like what was released today there’s reason to be concerned, but we already were concerned. We knew the pandemic year of learning was going to be a struggle for students, so the numbers aren’t necessary surprising even if they aren’t reflective of what students dealt with either," he said.

McCann says the M-STEP exam is meant to be a snapshot of performance during a normal school year.

"It’s frustrating that, especially in a year in which school was anything other than normal for these kids, that we would be giving so much importance to what a standardized test that is meant as a snapshot of normal school year progress would be telling us," he said. "It just isn't what we need. It's not what we need to be focused on, and it's not ultimately what's going to help these students get caught back up."

Crucial to getting Michigan students back on track, McCann said, will be using federal funds to provide wraparound services to students. He said that's going to involve a lot of one-on-one work with students to meet them where they are.

"What we're trying to do right now, is as kids are coming back to classes, instead of looking at standardized data that doesn't give a very good picture of things, we're trying to ask every single student a very simple question. It can be as simple as, 'how are you doing?'" he said. "Because that's the question that's ultimately going to give us the information we need to know about that child. Are they feeling good where they're at academically? Are they struggling with something socially or emotionally?" 

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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