Michigan schools may be tapping the brakes on declining test scores.

Released Thursday morning, the results of annual statewide tests given to Michigan students in grades 3-8 last spring inched upward or declined at a slower pace than the previous year, giving hope that the state’s public schools may be beginning to reverse years of academic struggles.

The results are still nothing to brag about. Less than half of students in every grade in every academic subject tested were deemed “proficient” in the subject matter. A lower share of students in every grade tested were proficient in English language arts than four years ago, despite several years of investment in early literacy. Proficiency rates increased in six out of 12 test categories in grades 3-8.

Still, that qualifies as progress in Michigan, which in recent years has seen consistent declines in student achievement on M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress), an annual assessment of students as required under federal education law. The test measures English language arts, math, social studies and science knowledge in grades 3-8. Not all subjects are tested each year. This year, 11th-graders switched their annual test from M-STEP to PSAT, a national test that is the preliminary test to the SAT.

The Michigan Department of Education emphasized the positives in the test results, highlighting modest gains in English language arts in third and fourth grade for the second year in a row.

“We appreciate the gains made this year in our early grades,” said state superintendent Michael Rice. “Focus and attention on early childhood education and early literacy are beginning to bear fruit, and continued efforts in these areas will keep Michigan moving forward.”

Highlights of statewide test results include:

  • English language arts proficiency rate for third-graders inched upward for the second straight year, from 44.4 percent proficient to 45.1 percent proficient or higher. That’s a key indicator for the state going into the 2019-20 school year, when third-graders who are reading more than one grade level behind may be held back. But the share of third-graders in the lowest scoring category — “not proficient” — continued to grow. An estimated 2,000 to 5,000 third-graders may be retained in grade at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
  • In four out of 12 testing categories in grades 3-8, proficiency rates are higher than five years ago, when the M-STEP was first taken by Michigan students.  
  • Seventh-grade English language arts proficiency continued to plummet – with the share of seventh-graders deemed proficient falling every year the M-STEP has been given. On last spring’s test, 42.7 percent of seventh-graders were proficient or higher, compared to 49.1 percent in 2014-15.
  • Scores in Detroit increased and, in some cases, dramatically so in all but one of the tests. The percentage of fifth-graders proficient in math, for instance, increased to 7.4 percent from less than 5 percent, while math proficiency in seventh-graders jumped to 8.8 percent from 5.8 percent. 

The modest gains in some testing categories were made despite an unusually high number of snow days. School districts missed an average of 11 days because of bad weather during the 2018-19 school year, and 144 districts were closed 14 days or more, according to MDE.

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Mike Wilkinson and Ron French are reporters with Bridge Magazine. Chalkbeat and Bridge teamed up to cover the state test scores.