A new analysis of student achievement in Michigan's public schools raises concerns about big declines in proficiency among third-graders — struggles that are impacting kids across all demographic areas, including higher-income students and white students.

It's a troubling sign in a state that will soon begin holding back students who aren't proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.

The report, out Tuesday by the Education Trust-Midwest, includes a first-of-its kind analysis comparing Michigan's performance with about a dozen other states that use a similar standardized exam based on the Common Core State Standards.

"It's telling us that we haven't made progress toward improvement. We've actually fallen behind," said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Royal Oak-based education policy and research organization.

Michigan has been experiencing a well-documented academic decline — falling behind other states on the rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a representative sample of students in each state.

Tuesday's report takes it a step further, doing a comparative analysis on exams that all students take, and based on the same set of standards. In Michigan, students take the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress.

Among the findings:

  • For the 11 states that had annual test data from 2014 to 2016, Michigan saw the biggest decline in third-grade English language arts proficiency. Michigan third-graders went from 50% proficiency to 44.1% over that time period, a near six percentage point drop. Seven other states saw declines in third-grade literacy, but the closest drop to Michigan's was in Delaware, where the drop was 2.5 percentage points.
  • Michigan was the only state that saw a decline in third-grade math from 2014 to 2016. The number of students proficient in the subject dropped two percentage points, from 48.8% to 46.8%. The other 10 states saw increases that ranged from a gain of less than one percentage point in Oregon to 6.8 percentage points in California.
  • Every demographic of students has seen a slide in third-grade literacy. White students, for instance, saw a 6.5 percentage point drop, from 58.2% proficient in 2014 to 51.7% in 2016. That compares with black students, who declined 3.3 percentage points, from 23.2% to 19.9%; Hispanic students, who declined 5.2 percentage points, from 37.2% to 32%, and Asian students, who declined 6.3 percentage points, from 69.7% to 63.4%. Meanwhile, low-income students (those eligible for free or reduced price lunch), declined 6.2 percentage points, from 35.3% to 29.1%; while higher-income students declined 6.4 percentage points, from 66.8% to 60.4%.
  • Traditional public schools edged charter schools when the performance of low-income students was analyzed. The evaluation was narrowed to low-income students because charter schools overall serve a disproportionately high number of low-income students. The findings: About 30% of low-income students in traditional public schools were proficient in third-grade reading in 2017, compared with 23% of those in charter schools.

The demographic data, Arellano said, illustrates that "everybody is declining significantly together," Arellano said.

Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said in a statement that improving the literacy levels of Michigan's youngest students is crucial to the state's efforts to become a top 10 performing state in 10 years.

"The need to get all children reading at grade level is urgent," Ackley said. He said Michigan schools are in the early stages of using additional state funding to develop reading intervention programs.

"The work really starts before third grade," Ackley said. "We need to engage the parents, too, to get them more involved in their child's learning."

There's a lot at stake. The state has enacted tough new rules that in the 2019-20 school year require schools hold back third-graders who aren't reading at grade level, with some exceptions. This year, schools must have plans in place to assess students in the early grades to identify those who are struggling, come up with an intervention plan for those children and reach out to their parents.

Arellano said she believes Michigan can turn around student performance.

"We’re all in this together and we’re not going to get out of this until we work together," she said.

The organization, as it has in previous reports assessing academic achievement in Michigan, recommends Michigan learns from "leading states" — those that have seen marked improvement. Those states include Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. A common thread among those states: They each provide intense support to teachers and are aggressive at holding schools accountable.

The report also highlights the work of schools in the Grand Rapids Public Schools and Wyoming Public Schools, which have worked to "employ leading-state models in Michigan Schools." In both districts, the work has led to improvement. For instance, Parkview Elementary School in the Wyoming district, "ranks among the state's highest improving high-poverty schools for subjects such as third grade reading and math."

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or @LoriAHiggins