What should we make of test scores that fall, year after year — a nearly 6 percentage-point drop in third-grade reading proficiency across the state since 2015 alone — in a state where fewer than 50% of children are testing at grade level in any subject?
The number of kids who do proficient work in reading on the MSTEP dropped statewide, from 47.3% of students in grades three-eight passing in 2016 to 45.9% this year. The number of students scoring proficient on the science test are also down, a little, and math and social studies are up, a little.
But the fact that test scores continue to decline, year after year, in reading, is alarming. They're even more so given evidence that shows Michigan has been losing ground, nationally, for years on measures like early reading proficiency.
What to do? Well, there are a lot of have-to's and need-to's that the state so far seems unwilling to embrace.
The first thing you should know is that this is not a Detroit problem.
Michigan has been a laboratory for all kinds of experimental educational policy — the Educational Achievement Authority, priority schools, emergency managers and CEOs and school choice in nearly every form — reforms sold on a handful of fallacious principles, namely, that educators are lazy and inept, that a firm hand, not better funding or consistent expectations, could bring a district in line, and that free-market reforms would create competition that caused all schools to get better.
That's how we've set education priorities in Michigan for the past few decades — what should work, when "should" is rooted in ideology, not in sound pedagogy or techniques proven to offer improved results for children.
And although the state's most extreme experiments in education reform have been performed on Detroit's children, these test scores show that the rest of the state is also struggling.
Because Detroit is mostly black, and the rest of the state is mostly white, it's fair to use race as a stand-in for geography. While the percentage of African-American students proficient in third-grade reading has dropped from 23.2% in 2015 to 19.9% this year, it's worse for white students, down 6.5 percentage points over the same span — from 58.2% to 51.7% proficient.
Those scores are important, because third-grade reading proficiency is considered a key indicator of future academic success, and because the state has invested heavily in a reform borrowed from Florida that mandates flunking third-grade kids who can't score proficient by the school year's end. That starts in the 2019-20 school year.
And while the state has invested millions in early literacy coaching, it's not enough.
"The things we’ve tried in Michigan, from a policy standpoint, haven’t been turning results around as to relates to third-graders' reading," said Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne County RESA, a countywide entity that supports school districts.
"Our focus the last three to five years is more choice options, more charter schools and with declining enrollment statewide, people are trying to figure out how to right the ship in their school district while they're also facing that the state might be closing schools, might be re-configuring schools."
GOP lawmakers — this means the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder — have been loath to admit that money actually does solve some problems. They've cut funds to classroom and tinkered with teacher pensions, but not added much in the way of substantial increases for instruction.
Liepa is hopeful that modest increases to the per-pupil allowance made in recent years, along with increased funding for at-risk kids, will lead to better results, given time.
But balanced against that are those third-grade reading scores. Michigan's adoption of that Florida reform came with roughly $20 million a year to boost early literacy, with the goal of ensuring that third-graders won't have to be held back.
It sounds like a lot of money. But spread those dollars across the state — when it adopted a third-grade retention policy, Florida invested about $150 million a year in early literacy coaching — and it's not much.
This is how we do here: Adopt policy that sounds good, without the substance that makes it work.
And this perpetual decline should validate a repudiation of the principles that have helped to enable dropping enrollment in teacher prep colleges, declining enrollment in Michigan's public schools, and those persistent, abysmal test scores.
It has become almost cliche to say that Michigan has an education crisis, and that to address it, both state and local officials need to put their heads together around practical solutions rather than ideology excursions.
But it's cliche for a reason: It's true. And we are no closer to real solution building than we were four, eight or 20 years ago.
The recent scores are yet another occasion for a reasonable rethink.
Want to put money on whether Lansing will lead the way?
Written by Free Press Columnist Nancy Kaffer.