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Detroit's schools score worst in the nation again, but Vitti vows that will change

In addition to state-by-state performance, the results also highlight the performance of more than 20 large, urban school districts.
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Lecture chairs in classroom, stock image.

Michigan students were flat on a rigorous national exam, with scores virtually unchanged from the last time the test was given. But the bad news in the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress is out of Detroit, where student performance is the poorest in the nation. Again.

The district's new leader pledges that will change.

"Our students, parents, teachers and principals are ready to embrace change for improvement. They know we can do better," said Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

In Detroit, students had the worst performance not only among large, urban districts but also compared with all states in fourth- and eighth-grade math, as well as fourth-grade reading. Detroit shared the bottom spot with Cleveland for eighth-grade reading.

The results for Michigan's largest school district illustrate the urgency of Vitti's aggressive steps to turn around the district, which critics have said suffered under years of state control. An audit released in February found teachers have been using a curriculum so inferior, Vitti said it's leaving students "at a significant disadvantage."


  • In fourth-grade math, 4% of Detroit students scored at or above proficient, compared with 36% statewide, 31% in large cities and 40% nationwide for public school students.
  • In fourth-grade reading, 5% of Detroit students scored at or above proficient, compared with 32% statewide, 28% in large cities and 35% nationwide for public school students.
  • In eighth-grade math, 5% of Detroit students scored at or above proficient, compared with 31% statewide, 27% in large cities and 33% nationwide for public school students.
  • In eighth-grade reading, 7% of Detroit students scored at or above proficient, compared with 34% statewide, 27% in large cities and 35% nationwide for public school students.

Vitti said the results for the state's largest district aren't a reflection of the talent or potential of students.

"Instead, they are indicative of a school system that has not implemented best practices regarding curriculum, instruction, academic intervention and school improvement for over a decade."

The results of the 2017 NAEP — an exam given to a representative sample of students in each state — were released Tuesday. In addition to state-by-state performance, the results also highlight the performance of more than 20 large, urban school districts —including Detroit.

The NAEP is the largest ongoing assessment of what U.S. students know and can do.

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who chairs the National Assessment Governing Board — which sets policy for the NAEP — said the fact that only one-third of U.S. students who took the exam are proficient at reading is disappointing.

"We are seeing troubling gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students. We must do better for all children," Engler, who is interim president at Michigan State University, said in a news release.

The 2017 NAEP was the first time most of the students used tablet computers for the test, though a small number used the traditional paper-pencil format.

Overall, Detroit students saw declines in three out of four of the categories, though the declines were only considered statistically significant by NAEP standards in one area: fourth-grade math.

Vitti became superintendent in Detroit in May after a five-year stint as the superintendent in Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. That district saw "significant improvement," on the 2017 exam, Peggy Carr, associate director of the National Center for Education Statistics, said during a media briefing Monday. Vitti's former district posted strong results on the exam during Vitti's superintendency there.

That bodes well for Detroit, which "has been through lots of changes," said Bill Bushaw, the former chief academic officer for the Michigan Department of Education who is now executive director of the governing board. Bushaw, a product of the district, said he "has an investment there."

"I'm sure he recognizes the advantages of participation in the (NAEP urban assessment) program and how he can learn from the experiences and the processes that other urban districts have used to improve," Bushaw said of Vitti.

Indeed, Vitti said the district is rebuilding using some of the same strategies that "led to some of the highest performance among large urban school districts in Duval, Miami-Dade, and Florida in general." Vitti was also previously a top administrator in both Miami-Dade and the Florida Department of Education.

Some of those strategies, he said, include focusing on training teachers and school leaders on the Common Core State Standards, building systems that use data to monitor student performance and provide intervention, and adopting curriculum that is aligned to the standards."

Meanwhile, Michigan's performance continued a troubling trend that has been documented in report after report. For the last decade, Michigan's scores on the NAEP have declined or been flat, while other states have moved up. The only difference this year is that most other states also saw flat results.

This year, the average score for Michigan students improved by one point in three of the four categories, and didn't change in another. The state's rankings also improved. The problem? The rankings only improved because of declines in a handful of other states. And the one-point increases in performance are so tiny, they're insignificant.

"While Michigan’s NAEP scores have ticked up slightly and we’ve gone up in the state rankings, we know there is a lot more work to do," State Superintendent Brian Whiston said in a statement.

The Michigan Department of Education and the State Board of Education have been working on an effort to transform Michigan into a top 10 achieving state in 10 years.

"These tests were given in 2017 when we were one year into our efforts to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years," Whiston said. "Michigan is not yet where it needs to be."

He said there is a plan in place. "We need to stick with it, and give our students and educators the opportunity to keep improving."

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest — a research and advocacy group based in Royal Oak — said the data confirm what's already known about Michigan.

"Michigan student achievement is well below top 10 education states, such as Massachusetts, and the national average. ... To become a top 10 education state, we need to act like it. Michigan needs the policies, practices and focus that has propelled top performing and top improving states forward."

In Detroit, Vitti — who became superintendent in May — has led a comprehensive effort to improve academic achievement. In addition to the district's poor performance on the NAEP, students also struggle on state exams.

On Tuesday, the district's board is expected to take action on adopting a new curriculum in math and reading that Vitti says will be aligned to the Common Core standards, which outline what students should know in order to be prepared for college or careers. Currently, the curriculum isn't aligned to the standards, which were adopted by the MDE years ago.

"We simply need time and space to build capacity and improvement will be seen by 2020's administration of NAEP."

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

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