Michigan's elementary and middle school students are slowly making gains in math and social studies on the state's tough standardized exam. But a troubling trend is obvious in results released Tuesday: That progress is overshadowed by declines nearly across the board in reading and writing, as well as continued struggles in science.

The declines in reading and writing couldn't come at a worse time, given the state is upping the stakes and requiring schools, with some exceptions, to hold back students whose performance indicate they're not reading at grade level. Those rules kick in during the 2019-20 school year.

The Michigan Department of Education this morning released the results of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress and the Michigan Merit Exam. Results show droves of students across all grade levels and subjects failed the important tests that were taken this spring.

The M-STEP tests students in English language arts and math in grades three through eight, in science in grades four and 11, and in social studies in grades five and eight. The MME is a high school exam that for the second year in a row includes the SAT as well as state-created tests in science and social studies. It is taken by 11th graders.

The results:

  • 45.9% of students in grades 3-8 passed the English language arts portion of the M-STEP. That's down from 47.3% in 2016.
  • 37.89% of students in grades 3-8 passed the math portion of the M-STEP. That's up from 37.2% in 2016.
  • 23.5% of the students in grades four and seven who took the science M-STEP and in grade 11 who took the MME, passed. That's slightly down from 23.8% in 2016.
  • 32.8% of the students in grades five, eight and 11 passed exams in social studies, up from 30.3% last year.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston, in a statement, said the improvements in math and social studies "is exciting news."

"The English language arts scores are disappointing, however," he said.

Whiston said schools and districts need to work with their intermediate school districts to carefully analyze the results and look for ways to improve. The MDE and the State Board of Education have been intensely working to transform Michigan into a top 10 performing state.

"I am confident that investments into early childhood education and literacy supports will bring improvement and growth," Whiston said. "We need to stay focused and diligent."

Like last year, there was one consistent, negative trend: With the exception of fifth-grade language arts, more than half of the students were not proficient on the exams across all grades and subjects tested.

Meanwhile, student scores on the SAT portion of the exam showed slight increases. The average score was 1007.6 out of 1600, up from 1001 last year. This is the second time around students have taken the new SAT, which was revamped to better assess readiness for college and careers.

Comparison with other states is difficult because Michigan is one of only a few that require all students take the SAT. The others are Connecticut, which posted an average score of 1031 and Idaho, with an average score of 998.

The SAT also reports data showing the percentage of students that met its college readiness standard. In Michigan, 60% met the standard in evidence-based reading and writing, while 37% met it in math.

Poor performance on the M-STEP and MME could come with some consequences. The state could identify schools with consistently low results for improvement, and require they enter into a partnership agreement with the Michigan Department of Education.

Those agreements - an alternative to closing failing schools - means the districts with struggling schools will have to set goals for those schools and if they don't meet those goals the schools could face sanctions. The sanctions would vary depending on what the districts agreed to in the pacts with the state.

There were some bright spots in the state, including in the Madison District Public Schools in Madison Heights, where the number of students proficient was up in a number of areas.

In third-grade math, for instance, 50% of the students passed, up from 40%. In language arts, 39.3% were proficient, up from 34.3%. One of the biggest gains for the district came in fifth-grade math, where the percentage of students who passed went from 8.6% last year to 23.4% this year.

Superintendent Randy Speck said he's pleased with the results, though he knows the district must keep improving.

"It's what we've been working for," Speck said.

The district has made sure its curriculum is aligned with the standards taught on the exams. Three years ago it began operating using a balanced calendar, meaning students start the school year early and end it later than most others, while having more frequent breaks throughout the year. The schedule means there isn't as much time during the summer for students to lose what they've learned during the year.

"We're really starting to see the retention level increase," Speck said.

Most important, Speck said, is the district has tried to cultivate a culture "of trying to balance out the importance of showing each child that we love and care for them and at the same time saying you can really achieve and we want to show you you can do do it."

Today's release of test results will mark the first time in a while that the state has three years worth of reliable data to measure how well students and schools are performing, said officials with the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education policy and research organization.

"Michigan has taken the important step of setting high expectations for all of our students and using an honest tool to measure our progress. Now is the time to build on this work and move the needle forward," Brian Gutman, the organization's director of public engagement, said in a news release.

The release pointed out "stubborn achievement gaps" that remain in Michigan between white students and minority students. For instance, proficiency rates in eighth-grade math were four times greater for white students (39.2%) than they were for black students (10.1%) and double the rate for Latino students (19.5%), according to the organization.

And proficiency rates for low income students continue to be, as the release notes, "devastatingly low."

There is a correlation between poverty and poor performance on standardized tests. And while the Madison Heights district, where nearly 90% of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch, may be bucking the trend with its improvement, many schools with high populations of high-poverty students struggled.

That is felt most acutely in the state's largest city, where results for both the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Education Achievement Authority were low. The EAA, a state reform district that took on some of the worst-performing schools in the Detroit district, disbanded in June and its schools are now back in DPSCD.

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In DPSCD, the percentage of students who passed in language arts in grades 3-8 ranged from 9.4% in grade 6, to 16.1% in grade 8; while the math results ranged from fewer than 5% in grades five and six to a high of 12.3% in third grade. The state doesn't report specific results for schools where fewer than 5% were proficient.

In the schools directly run by the EAA, the language arts results ranged from fewer than 5% in grades three and six, to a high of 8.3% in eighth grade. Math ranged from fewer than 5% in grades four to seven to a high of 9.5% in grade three.

The EAA's three charter schools, which were independently operated, did far better, with language arts results ranging from 11% in grade four to 24.7% in grade eight; and with math ranging from fewer than 5% in grade five to 14.9% in grade three.