Rock bottom

Detroit schools ranked worst on national exam — again. But is there hope that things can improve?

PHOTO: Getty images

It’s difficult to find good news for Detroit schools in newly released national test score results.

Not only did students in the city’s main district rank dead last — for the fifth time — among major cities in every subject, but their scores dropped even lower than the rock-bottom numbers Detroit fourth-graders posted the last time they took the exam in 2015.

The biggest drop came in fourth-grade math, where the city’s average score fell 5 points between 2015 and 2017.

The test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, was given to a representative sample of students in the first few months of 2017, shortly after a new school board took over the district, but before Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was hired.

The poor showing put an exclamation point on years of turmoil in the city’s main school district.

Detroit schools saw a rotating cast of emergency managers, teacher walkouts over unsafe building conditions, and plunging enrollment that created a financial crisis. It was so severe that the Detroit Public Schools only avoided bankruptcy in 2016 when state lawmakers created a new debt-free district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

During that time, a teacher shortage forced schools to crowd 30 or 40 students into some classrooms. And educators have been using a curriculum so outdated that a recent audit found students had largely been set up to fail.

Given all of that, few experts were expecting strong results on the NAEP — a test often called the nation’s report card.

“There’s just been so much instability in this district for so long,” said Mike Addonizio, a professor of educational policy at Wayne State University. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find other urban districts that have had the disruption that Detroit has had.”

The exam is given to students across the country every two years.

Detroit is one of the large urban districts that voluntarily participates in a comparison of big city schools called the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. This year, 27 districts participated.

Detroit, which has taken part in the urban district comparison since 2009, has ranked last every year that it has participated.

But the district also faces more significant challenges than those in other cities.

According to U.S. Census data, Detroit has the lowest median household income and the highest percentage of families living in poverty compared to people who live within the boundaries of the other 26 districts.

The data show that half of families with children under 18 in Detroit live in poverty.

Poverty is a major predictor of how well students perform on standardized tests, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

It doesn’t explain why Detroit students dropped 5 points in fourth-grade math compared to two years or earlier, or why some cities do well despite high poverty rates.

Fourth-graders in Jacksonville, for example, posted the highest math scores among participating districts even as poverty within the boundaries of the Duval County Public Schools is higher than in seven other TUDA districts.

The scores in Jacksonville are perhaps the only glimmer of hope that Detroiters can turn to in the test results.

Those Jacksonville fourth-graders posted one of the largest math gains among TUDA districts between 2015 and 2017— a jump of 5 points — at a time when Vitti was running the schools there.

Vitti, who left Jacksonville last spring to become superintendent in Detroit, had been in charge of the Duval schools since that group of fourth-graders had been in kindergarten.

He can claim credit for the improvements there and says he hopes to do the same for Detroit.

Detroit’s scores are “not a reflection of our students’ talent or potential,” Vitti said. “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.”

Vitti said things are already changing in the district.

“This year we have focused on rebuilding the district’s infrastructure using the same strategies that led to some of the highest performance among large urban school districts in Duval, Miami-Dade, and Florida in general,” he said. “This includes a focus on training teachers and leaders on the Common Core standards, implementing data systems to monitor student performance and provide intervention, and curriculum that is aligned to the standards. We simply need time and space to build capacity and improvement will be seen by 2020’s administration of NAEP.”

Sarah Lenhoff, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wayne State who specializes in school improvement and choice said the strong scores in Duval are encouraging news for Detroit. 

“That’s more evidence that Dr. Vitti was a good hire and might know how to boost Detroit in the same way Duval was boosted,” said “We need to focus on instruction, high-quality teaching, trying to move to a more rigorous and aligned curriculum.”

Duval’s fourth-grade reading scores were unchanged between 2015 and 2017 while eighth-grade scores remained flat, with math up 1 point and reading down 1 point — changes so small that testing officials said they were not statistically significant.

In Detroit, the 5-point drop that fourth-graders posted in math on the 2017 exam was identified as a statistically significant decline by the exam’s creators.

Fourth-grade reading scores also dropped 5 points, but that change was not identified as statistically significant.

The Detroit eighth-graders who took the test in 2017, meanwhile, posted similar scores to students who took the test two years earlier, with math scores up 1 point and reading scores down 2 points — changes that were not identified as significant.

Ron French and Mike Wilkinson, of Bridge Magazine, contributed to this report.

Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine, members of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, teamed up to cover the nation’s report card on schools. Click here to see Bridge’s report on Michigan scores.

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Math

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Mathematics Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

 

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 4th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

2017 NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment Rankings for 8th Grade Reading

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1990–2017 Reading Assessments. / Graphic by Sam Park

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

Michigan is he second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The state’s request includes stories from the Detroit area, which is home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say. The candidate speeches begin at around the 12:00 minute mark.