What to Make of Michigan’s M-STEP Scores

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 11, 2015

On October 27, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) released the statewide results of the 2015 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) exams – the state’s new standardized tests. The results were miserable. Only 45% of 6th graders scored proficient in English, 33% of 5th graders scored proficient in mathematics, and a paltry 12% of 4th graders scored proficient in science. In almost all regards, the scores painted a bleak picture of academic achievement in Michigan. (For the full results, see Table 1 below).

M-STEP is the new test that all students in grades 3-8 must take each spring to demonstrate their proficiency in English, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies. The M-STEP exams replaced the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exams, which had been a fixture in schools for the past 44 years but had fallen out of favor since the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010.


Better Than Expected

While the scores are indeed worrisome, the reaction from state officials has actually been quite nonchalant. MDE was quick to point out that the M-STEP results were actually better than expected given that the M-STEPs were much more rigorous than the old MEAPs. Also, due to delays in test development, teachers had not been entirely sure what the exams would look like and therefore could not adequately prepare their students for them as they had in years past. As State Superintendent Brian Whiston put the issue: “With this all-new and more rigorous test, we expected statewide student scores to be lower than what we’d seen. While the overall scores on this new test are low, they aren’t as low as we first thought they would be.”

Some of the lack of concern about these results can also probably be attributed to the fact that the state has suspended the use of testing data for accountability purposes until fall 2017 so that MDE can work out any bugs in the system and educators can have time to learn about the tests and adjust their teaching accordingly. As a result, there will be no top-to-bottom rankings of schools again until 2017, and the bottom 5% of schools, which under existing policies are subject to monitoring by the state and the possibility of being placed into a turnaround district, will get a reprieve from any sanctions.

A More Rigorous Test

The M-STEP exams are designed to capture student performance under the Common Core State Standards, a national curriculum adopted by forty-two states which defines what students should know in order to be college- and career-ready. Overall, the Common Core is a more challenging curricular framework for students, focusing on not only content knowledge, but also critical thinking. Unlike the MEAPs, which were typical fill-in-the-bubble exams, the M-STEPs have far fewer multiple choice questions and instead force students to demonstrate critical thinking skills through essays and short answers. The M-STEPs are also administered online in most schools, meaning for some young students they are also a test of keyboard skills.

Are Higher Standards the Answer?

The M-STEP exams represent a welcome update to a standardized testing regime that had grown stale in recent years. However, much remains to be seen about the true value of the new tests and the Common Core Standards they reflect. Of course, it is almost indisputable that high standards should be set for all students. However, underlying the “excellence for all” movement is the stubborn belief that simply setting high expectations for students will essentially solve the educational crisis. Superintendent Whiston reiterated this conviction, saying after the scores were released: “Wherever we set the achievement bar, the students will jump over it. [Reform] is about expectations.”

On this front, Michigan has set a goal of achieving 85% proficiency on the M-STEP exams by 2025. While 85% is a much more sensible goal than the quixotic 100% mandated by No Child Left Behind, it is extremely difficult to see how it can be accomplished without eventually lowering cut scores or watering down the exams. If this year’s test results have told us anything, it is that much work needs to be done to scaffold these new tests so they might avoid the same game-playing, pitfalls, and letdowns that have plagued standardized testing since the 1980s.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.