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Chad Selweski

Chad Selweski

Educators Put a Happy Face on Dreadful Test Scores

September 1, 2017

The results are out for the main test administered to Michigan’s K-12 students and what they show, above all else, is failure in our schools.

The M-STEP test scores released this week show that most students across the spectrum are failing to learn what the exam says they need to know in their grade level. English, math, science, social studies – the stories of failure are everywhere.

While education officials studiously seek out year-to-year gains within the data, the fact is that test scores from Muskegon to Mackinaw, from Macomb County to Manistee demonstrate that our kids are not attaining the knowledge that leads to a post-high school college education or a vocational skill.

The failures are widespread but perhaps nothing sounds the alarm more than what is happening in classrooms in Michigan’s largest and most-troubled city: The proportion of third-graders in Detroit who passed the overall test was just 10 percent.  What future awaits those youngsters if they do not receive an education-based rescue plan? Will they post mediocre scores all the way through the 12th grade?

At the same time, if you believe the problem is an inner-city Detroit problem, think again.  Statewide, the percentage of third-grade students passing the reading portion of the M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress) dipped for the third year in a row.  The Michigan Department of Education reported that third-graders passing the English language arts test — which measures reading, writing, listening and language — dropped to 44.1 percent in 2017, compared to 46 percent in 2016 and 50 percent in 2015.

No one needs reminding that the previous high-water mark of 50-50 on this section of the test was an abomination in a global economy where jobs linked to higher education remain dominant. Kids who can’t read by the third grade often struggle throughout their K-12 experience.

Meanwhile, State Superintendent of Schools Brian Whiston, in his happy-talk about our schools, sounds a bit like President Trump when he boasts about how his White House functions wonderfully.  Whiston serves as a cheerleader; he is programmed to espouse disingenuous praise for the education system annually, regardless of what the assessments show.  A year ago, facing appalling scores on the standardized exam, he pointed to a few improvements and claimed, “We can celebrate our successes.”

This week, he seems to be following a standard playbook as he proclaimed, “It’s important to take the time to celebrate our successes”

How off the mark are the PR-style statements from the Department of Education? Let’s take a look:

  • Statewide M-STEP results show that 56% of sixth-grade students are “not proficient” or “partially proficient” in the subject of English – meaning they failed the test.
  • Two-thirds of Michigan’s eight-graders failed the math portion of the exam.
  • Three-fourths of seventh-graders failed the test in science.
  • Eight in 10 fifth-graders failed in social studies.

In Detroit’s northern suburbs, where most parents think their schools are just fine, it doesn’t take much effort to pinpoint scores that are as bad as, or worse, than those in Detroit.  At Hoover Elementary School in the Hazel Park district, just 12.5 percent of third-graders passed the overall test, including math and reading. At McGlinnen Elementary in the Clintondale (Clinton Township) district, the passing rate was a mere 7.7 percent. (Searchable data is available at

Across Michigan, of the top 10 high schools, four were magnet schools or academies, where a rigorous college-prep curriculum is taught and students have the opportunity to take “early college” classes.

According to Whiston, the “exciting news” about the tests, which were administered last spring, is that mathematics and social studies proficiency gained in eight of nine grades tested. The SAT college entrance exam for 11th graders, part of the M-STEP testing process, also showed improvement. By that, the Department of Education means that scores rose to 1007.6 in 2017, up from 1000.8 in 2016 – an improvement of 0.4 of a percent compared to a perfect score of 1600. Overall, just 37 percent of these high school juniors are “college-ready” in math.

The improvements touted by the department reflect comparisons to the dreadful results on the 2016 M-STEP and the slightly more dreadful scores in the first year of the M-STEP in 2015. 

The final report card in 2017 reveals this staggering outcome: With the exception of fifth-grade English language arts, more than half of all students failed the exams across all grades and subjects tested.

Teachers hate these standardized exams and how it forces them to “teach to the test.” They say that the tests don’t reflect how well most of their students are doing. More than a decade of complaints about the testing process in Michigan led to moves from the MEAP test to the MME test to the M-STEP, and now the Education Department wants to “tweak” the M-STEP.

Educators can keep blaming the test, they can shoot the messenger, but the ones wounded in this process are our kids.

A freelance writer from Macomb County, Chad Selweski was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at

August 31, 2017 · Filed under Chad Selweski

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chuck Fellows // Sep 1, 2017 at 8:15 am

    The tests themselves are defective and cannot be used to determine the state of learning in our schools. They represent a huge waste of time and money taking a big chunk out of the trillion dollar education spending in the US each year.

    Fundamental rule of data: Data, in this case test scores, absent context are meaningless. (Shewhart, Deming, Chambers et al)

    Meaningless because they ignore the multitude of factors that actually impact learning. The child’s home and societal environment. Poorly maintained facilities. Way too much emphasis on testing and a win-lose competitive environment. A punitive approach to Human Resource management.

    Take a twenty minute lesson before you opine again about education. Listen to Ken Robinson’s video presentation “Are Schools Killing Creativity” available on YouTube and TED. For further enlightenment on the root cause of our educational malaise see “Changing Education Paradigms” another video presentation by Ken Robinson.

    Consider this, teachers are told what to teach, when to teach and how to teach by politicians and bureaucrats who have never taught. There is an enormous push by conservative interests (Koch & Mercer) to dismantle public education. The Michigan Merit Curriculum prohibits creativity, imagination and innovation in classrooms as well as insuring a child’s curiosity is destroyed.

    Assessment of learning progress is best achieved by teachers, students and parents through effective curricula and pedagogy (performance based learning, hands on learning, addressing the learning needs of the individual) through frequent formative and summative testing designed and administered by teachers in a classroom. Allowing children to be responsible for their own learning is essential for success.

    The rest of the world has and is learning this. We ignore the real causes of learning inhibition at our peril.

  • 2 Vivian Carpenter // Sep 1, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Michigan needs a constitutional amendment to take the funding of public education off of the property tax system with a mandate to provide proper funding of public education for all children in the state. Are the poor performing students mostly from communities with below average per pupil state funding?

  • 3 Anagnorisis // Sep 1, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Commentary inclusive, the writing on the wall is that there is no fix to education under current standards. Granted. money has a place in this, as in kids can’t learn on empty stomachs or lack of qualified teachers or books. As above so below, that is, college level students also can’t read or write adequate to higher learning. Maybe teachers are constricted in methods of testing &c, maybe morale is down for many reasons. I saw this declension from the fifties in public schools, lack of verve in learning through mundane process of rote teaching, and we even had cool new books and hot fresh lunches back then. It’s probably much worse now. As GW Bush once asked “Is are children learning?”



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