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Standardized Testing for Michigan Students Begins, But Debate Carries On

This blog was co-authored with Walter Cook, a researcher with the Detroit Education Research Partnership at Wayne State University

Statewide Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, has begun for Michigan students, after much debate. There has been a range of perspectives and opinions from school administrators, teachers, policymakers, child advocates, and researchers about the benefits and costs of testing students’ academic proficiency given the unusual and challenging nature of this school year. There are significant pros and cons to both sides of the issue, including how the data will be interpreted and used.   

Michigan’s Request to Postpone Testing Denied 

After a gap in testing during the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 began to disrupt schooling, questions arose about whether states would be able to seek permission to forgo 2021 state testing. In March of 2021, the Michigan legislature requested a waiver for this year’s test, but was denied by the US Department of Education (USED). The USED mandated that students across the country would resume state standardized tests this spring. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona asserted that “assessments are crucial to learning where students stand.” 

In response, President of the Michigan Board of Education, Casandra Ulbrich, stated that the “USED had an opportunity to do the right thing for the right reasons, and instead chose to appease special interests rather than support students.” She is one of many influential education stakeholders in Michigan who believe that the requirement to administer the M-STEP is putting unnecessary burden on students and their families during the pandemic.  

Additionally, in response to the federal denial of Michigan’s request, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice stated, “Is it any wonder that educators are leaving the profession when, in a pandemic, USED insists that Michigan use time, which should be dedicated to children’s social, emotional, and academic growth, to test a portion of its students to generate data that will inform precisely nothing about our children’s needs that we won’t already know more substantially and quickly with benchmark assessments this year?” 

It is important to note that the federal government did waive the traditional requirement that at least 95% of students in each school complete the state standardized test. In response, the Michigan Department of Education and State Board of Education have ruled that students who are currently in virtual settings have the right to stay at home and not take the test at school

The Purpose of Standardized Testing 

There are three primary purposes of state standardized testing. The first is to provide an objective measure for student performance that is easily compared across schools and over time. Historically, standardized student test data has provided critical insight to how much academic progress students within a school are making and trends in data offered a window into the opportunity and outcome gaps between different student populations. 

Second, these data are used as a measure for accountability for districts/schools, teachers, and students. In fact, 40% of a teacher’s evaluation is measured by their students’ performance on standardized tests. Test scores at the district- and school-level have been used to identify gaps in academic achievement, whereby “the information from these accountability measures enables policymakers to identify the schools that need intervention.”  

Third, teachers can leverage student-level state standardized test scores to identify gaps in knowledge and proficiency. These data enable educators to provide differentiated instruction to help students improve in those areas.  

Furthermore, standardized student assessments provide insight to inequities in public education, community resources, child well-being, and opportunities across racial groups.  

Critiques of Standardized Testing  

State standardized testing presents a set of challenges despite its potential benefits. One argument is that the tests themselves are not necessarily predictive of future outcomes, rather that they measure how well students take tests. Moreover, some experts believe that the tests are too crude a measure to provide teachers with actionable insights into the students’ weaknesses. According to Greg Jouriles, contributor for Education Week: “Standardized tests are unnecessary because they rarely show what we don’t already know. Ask any teacher and she can tell you which students can read and write.”  

Administering tests also diverts time and resources from other educational activities. Every hour that a student spends taking a test is an hour that they are not learning new material.  

Additionally, amid a pandemic, some worry that testing may do more harm than good by putting additional stress on children and educators during a very difficult time in their lives.  

The Pandemic’s Impact on Standardized Testing       

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed methodological limitations on state standardized testing. Standardized tests require that there be little variation in setting to yield comparable measures. Conditions are certainly different this year as the pandemic surges on, disrupting in-person learning and household stability. Tens of thousands of school-aged Michigan children were not enrolled this year, student attendance has fallen, and there are disparities in student populations enrolled in remote versus in-person learning. With these considerations, there will be many caveats in comparing data and assessing trends. 

The State of Michigan has acknowledged these limitations and have determined that the 2021 test results will not be used as accountability measures for schools nor students. This includes a pause on Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law which would retain third graders who do not score as reading proficient on the M-STEP.  

Nevertheless, many believe that testing students this spring will yield important information about how COVID-19 has impacting learning and how opportunity gaps have been exacerbated. 

The Future of Standardized Testing 

Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal suggested a representative sampling for 2021 testing in his state, saying, “We can get a robust sample size big enough that we can actually tell the impacts of [the pandemic] on different student groups with statistical significance, race, geography, who was open to in-person (instruction) versus who stayed remote.”  

The deliberations around this year’s standardized testing have prompted some to consider what it may look like in the future. A primary consideration that has been put forth is to administer statewide standardized tests to a stratified sample of students rather than the entire population. This method is used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered to a sample of students nationwide on a biannual basis. In addition to being more cost effective, data experts explain that a randomly selected, stratified sample of students can be effectively used to estimate proficiency at the state-level for demographic populations of interest.  

In Conclusion

Understanding how, and where, students are academically progressing and what factors impact learning growth is imperative. But to serve as the basis of our understanding and decision making, data must be high quality. Student assessments are among the many imperfect things in 2021, the second year of a persisting pandemic. Policymakers, educators, funders, and other education stakeholders must be thoughtful about how this year’s data is deciphered and used, understanding the challenges and limits of this year’s testing season.    

To learn more about the debate around state standardized testing during COVID-19, please refer to the following resources:  

Walter Cook is a researcher with the Detroit Education Research Partership at Wayne State University, where he is also a current student in the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Since 2015, he has worked for several nonprofits seeking to improve Detroit’s educational systems through the use of educational data and research. Prior to that, he was a PhD candidate in Educational Policy and an Economics of Education Fellow at Michigan State University. His research interests include policies that effect school enrollment decisions as well as efforts to improve achievement and reduce chronic absenteeism. 

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