M-STEP exam: Several question proposed changes

The Department of Education wants to change the way kids in Michigan are tested -- again.

Several members of the State Board of Education raised concerns today over plans moving forward to change the way kids are tested in Michigan schools.

"We’ve changed the test so many times in so many years it seems difficult to me to support something that supports changing it again, even if it’s an improvement," said Kathleen Straus, D-Detroit.

The board — during its monthly meeting in Lansing — heard a presentation from the Michigan Department of Education that builds on proposed changes State Superintendent Brian Whiston has been talking about for months.

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The state wouldn't get rid of the relatively new Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, which was given for the first time in 2015. That test, a more rigorous exam than the one it replaced, has stumped many Michigan students, with half or more of the kids failing it across all grades and subject areas.

Under the new plan, the M-STEP would likely only be given in two grades — fourth and seventh — each year.

New would be an exam given at the beginning and end of the school year to all students that would measure how much they have improved over the course of a school year.

A final plan for changing the testing system would go before the board later this year or early next year for approval.

The discussion came the day after several business and advocacy groups issued a letter urging the MDE to stick with the M-STEP in its current form. The groups include the Business Leaders for Michigan, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Education Trust-Midwest.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen education groups in the state have come out in support of the plan.

The proposed changes in the state's testing system are part of the MDE's ongoing efforts to transform Michigan into a top-10 performing state in the nation. Michigan has fallen behind many other states that have shown consistent improvement on the rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests a representative sample of students in every state.

Whiston said employers want future employees who are curious and are problem-solvers, who can can work independently and in teams, who can communicate well and achieve goals and who are critical thinkers. The state, he said, needs a testing system that measures those things.

He has proposed an exam that would measure problem solving, for instance, by having teams of kids solve a problem.

"How you assess that is new," Whiston said. "We need some new approaches."

Deputy Superintendent Venessa Keesler said that what's being proposed isn't a complete change in the testing system.

"Think of it more as a modification," she said.

Board President John Austin, D-Ann Arbor, said he wanted to be sure that any change would still provide some continuity. Whiston said that would happen given the M-STEP would continue to be given in two grade levels annually.

Several of the board members said they have reservations. Michigan has made major changes in its testing system multiple times in the last few years — much of it largely because of mandates from the Michigan Legislature.

Eileen Weiser, R-Ann Arbor, said she supports the MDE's vision, but if the MDE is "wholesale replacing M-STEP or modifying it for fewer grades," she couldn't back it.

After students take the M-STEP in the spring, the state will finally have three years of longitudinal data. Weiser said it's not a good idea "to change the game just as we get to a point where we have usable data."

Casandra Ulbrich, D-Rochester Hills, said she's apprehensive about a change "because of the unknowns." But she said she's more concerned about the increasingly high-stakes nature of testing, saying it's punishing schools and kids. She cited legislation Gov. Rick Snyder signed last week that would hold back third-graders — with some exceptions — who are more than a grade level behind in reading. Those decisions would be largely made based on the state test.

The letter issued this week urges the MDE to stick with the M-STEP as it comes up with a plan to comply with the new federal education law that was approved by Congress last year.

"Aligned, coherent, quality state assessment systems signal to parents whether or not their child is on track to acquire the essential critical thinking skills they'll need for the 21st-Century global economy ... Moving in the wrong direction could have devastating repercussions on teaching and learning in our state," the letter said.

Previously, 13 education groups — including groups that represent administrators, teachers, principals, school board members, school business officials, nonpublic schools and higher education officials — issued a letter that supports a change beginning with the 2017-18 school year "that would be the state's system for the next 10 years."

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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