Is The M-STEP On The Right Path?

Apr 30, 2018

This week, your children may be among thousands taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP.  It’s the yardstick the state uses to measure a student’s proficiency in math, science, social studies and language arts. 

First, let’s lay this fact on the table:

Nobody likes a test.

The word itself provokes a visceral reaction for most of us who don’t enjoy having our intellectual feet held to the fire. 

But Andrew Middlestead knows the value of a test.

He directs the office of educational assessment and accountability at the Michigan Department of Education.  Middlestead leads the team that developed the M-STEP.  It was first introduced in 2015 to replace the Michigan Educational Assessment Program; a.k.a. the “MEAP.”

Middlestead says the M-STEP is a tool for the 21st century: it’s online and engaging.

“It can really allow the students an opportunity to demonstrate some of the skills they’ve been learning in their classrooms, rather than just allowing them to circle bubbles on a Scantron sheet,” says Middlestead.

The M-STEP was designed to move students beyond fact recall and into critical thinking. 

But the transition has been rocky.

In 2015, one half of all Michigan third graders failed to score proficiently in English language arts.  By 2017, that figure had dropped another six percent. 

(Lavery): "Every year that the M-STEP has been around, the scores have gotten worse.  What does the state make of that?” 

"Yes, our scores have not been where we certainly would like them," Middlestead concedes.  "When you look at measures like the M-STEP, it takes a number of years for things to settle in and impacts to be seen.  Certainly, we want our scores to be higher.  We’re optimistic, because we know there’s a lot of things going on that in a year, two years, three years...we’re really hoping that things will get a lot better.”

Middlestead says the state is increasing its focus early literacy instruction and offering more professional development for teachers.

But students don’t have time to wait for the statistics to level off.  Starting in 2019, third graders who miss the proficiency mark in language arts will be held back.  

That concerns teachers like Jeannette Barnes, a K-8 music teacher at Paragon Academy in Jackson.

“I think it’s motivated me to get them exposed to text more often, because sometimes I do things by ear,” she says.  “Nobody wants a kid to not be a reader by third grade.  You know, it’s definitely motivated all of our special and grade-level teachers to get moving.”

The notion of mandatory retention doesn’t sit well with some educators who say decades of research disprove its worth.

“It’s really about holding them back to receive the same curriculum, the same instruction, typically within the same exact environment, expecting different results,” says WKAR Education Director Robin Pizzo.

Pizzo is a former middle school teacher and literacy coach.  She believes retention is ineffective beyond kindergarten, and actually increases a student’s chances of dropping out before graduation. 

As for professional development, Pizzo says there’s only so much a teacher can receive and put into practice in a single school year.

“So, for those students that may be extremely low – one or two years behind – it can be daunting to say that those supports will be enough for students to move forward,” she says.

Michigan teachers spend much of the school year preparing their students for the M-STEP. 

However, its long-term future is uncertain.

“I just don’t think the test we give kids today is relatable,” observes Michigan state superintendent Brian Whiston. “You know, I don’t think they care, in a lot of ways...and so I don’t think we’re getting the results.”

So, Whiston wants to try something bold: letting a small number of districts opt out of the M-STEP and try their hand at developing their own assessment. 

We’ll explore that issue in a later report.