Test scores in all ten districts

By Karen Hopper Usher

CADILLAC — Test scores suggest kids aren’t learning the things the state says they should.

It’s true across subjects. While some districts perform better than others, and some subjects have higher rates of proficiency, a Cadillac News analysis indicates local test scores don’t meet grade-level standards.

Only about 40% of students in 10 local districts (Buckley, Cadillac, Evart, Lake City, Manton, Marion, McBain, Mesick, Pine River and Reed City) are proficient at grade level — we’ll explain how we got that number later in the story.

We’re not unique.

Proficiency rates statewide show most Michigan students aren’t receiving test scores the state deems proficient at grade level. In third through seventh grades, statewide proficiency didn’t break the 50% mark in math or English in 2019.

In eighth grade, where students take the PSAT instead of the MSTEP, English proficiency rates were higher, with 61.9% receiving proficient test results. But math proficiency stayed below the halfway mark, with 41.4% of Michigan eighth graders receiving proficient scores on the math portion of the PSAT.

While it’s certainly possible to compare districts — and you can look at the data to see how your district performed — we wanted to answer this question: what are the odds a random public school student living somewhere nearby has passed state testing at their grade level?


The Michigan Department of Education recently released 2019’s MSTEP, PSAT and SAT scores.

The Cadillac News coverage area spans 10 school districts and three intermediate school districts.

To figure out, on average, whether local kids are proficient in their various subjects at their various grade levels, we combined data across the districts.

In 2019, 3rd through 8th graders and 11th graders in the 10 districts took 24,281 MSTEP and PSAT tests in several subjects.

Third through 7th graders took English language arts and mathematics MSTEP tests, while 5th, 8th and 11th graders took MSTEP social studies and science tests (though the science data was not reported and is not included in our analysis) and 8th graders took English and mathematics PSATs.

Not every student took every test.

For example, in Cadillac, some 3rd graders took the math MSTEP (524) but not the English portion (520).

Of the 24,281 MSTEP and PSAT tests in the 10 districts, kids earned proficient or advanced scores on 9,820 of them — or 40%.

That’s not quite the same thing as saying that only 40% are proficient at grade level.

Students were counted multiple times because they took tests in more than one subject. Individual students may be proficient in one subject but not the other. The state also withheld some data in certain categories due to low population. However, we believe the figure provides a useful approximation.


Educators criticize MSTEP

By Victoria Martin, Chris Lamphere and Karen Hopper Usher

Five years in, and local educators are still not sold on the MSTEP.

“Do I like (MSTEP), no,‘ said Reed City Area Public Schools Superintendent Myra Munroe.. “(...) I definitely think there is more the state and us could talk about in the way of better testing.‘

Michigan students take the test in math and English in grades 3-7. Students take the MSTEP social studies and science tests in grades five, eight and 11 (though the state did not release science scores this year because of “a large-scale field test of the new science assessment system,‘ the Michigan Department of Education said in a news release).

The test has changed several times since the state switched over from MEAP (paper and pencil) to MSTEP (computerized) testing in 2015.

It’s changed so much and so often in the past few years that the state cautions against comparing scores year-to-year.

This past school year, 2018-2019, is the first year since the switch where there is a relatively clean comparison across years for M-STEP and SAT, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Venessa Keesler said, according to a news release.

“Year-to-year comparisons of state assessment results can be problematic,‘ Keesler said. “Changes and systematic improvements to Michigan’s state assessment system have been made each year since the M-STEP began in 2015, which make it difficult to make data comparisons or interpret long-term data trends.‘

And some local superintendents would like to see yet more changes.

Munroe said she would prefer criteria testing.

Criteria testing would evaluate whether schools are meeting the standards being taught rather than if they are ahead or behind of last year’s group, Munroe explained. That would make it easier for educators to judge what needs to be addressed from year to year, according to Munroe.

“A normative test, it gives me a smattering of data, which isn’t always a bad thing, but that can vary so greatly from year to year,‘ she said. “That doesn’t really help me and my team figure out what is working.‘

Evart Superintendent Shirley Howard agreed with Munroe that a different test should be implemented but added that there should be a scheduling change in when the test is administered.

“When the students take the test, there is still school left and we have not reached points in our curriculum that are on the test,‘ said Howard. “A test even later in the year would make a difference.‘

Students take MSTEP in the spring. Testing was fraught this year because students lost so much instructional time due to weather-related school cancellations. The state of Michigan says the data indicates the lost instructional time didn’t significantly sway numbers.

Manton Consolidated School Superintendent Leonard Morrow said he thinks the MSTEP has a time and a place but doesn’t provide much in the way of useful feedback for the district.

“It’s a snapshot of what a student knows on that particular day,‘ Morrow said. “It doesn’t take into account other things that are important. I’d rather it function a little differently.‘

Other superintendents criticized the timeliness of MSTEP.

While the state claims educators could see test results within 24-48 hours of the test date, in practice, superintendents say they don’t see the data right away, and it’s not always presented in a useful way.

Lake City Superintendent Kim Blaszak said educators have to use other assessments to identify student growth and weakness over time because MSTEP results don’t arrive soon enough.

“It’s hard to use it to inform instruction,‘ Blaszak said. “It’s a moving target. I’d like to see some more consistency from the legislature.‘



Bright spots in the data

By Rick Charmoli and Karen Hopper Usher

Some area schools have reason to be proud, even as the region overall needs improvement.

McBain Rural Agricultural School and Cadillac Area Public Schools both hit the 50% proficient mark according to the Cadillac News analysis (McBain students took 2,306 MSTEP and PSAT tests and were proficient on 1,178, or 51%; Cadillac students took 7,030 and were proficient on 3,504).

“(There are) a lot of things to be thankful for in McBain,‘ said the district’s superintendent, Steve Prissel.

And deeper dives into the data show some stand-out moments regionally.

Cadillac 8th graders shone in the PSAT, where more than 70% met English language arts standards and more than 50% were proficient in math.

The PSAT was new to Michigan students this year.

Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Jennifer Brown said it was uncertain how the new test would measure student learning. But CAPS students outperformed the state and similar schools in all areas by more than 12% in math and more than 11% in ELA, according to Brown.

While CAPS middle-level students in grades 5-8 have historically performed consistently on state assessments, Brown said district staff is excited about improved performance in both English language arts and math as a result of increased focus on students’ needs, a change in resources, additional training and staffing.

“Our students and staff worked very hard last year making many adjustments due to the weather, so we are very excited to see that students performed well on the end of year assessments,‘ Brown said.

And while comparing schools from year-to-year can be difficult because of the number of times the MSTEP has changed, historical context is important to understanding the strides made by some schools.

In Marion, students are rebounding, a fact of which Marion Elementary Principal and Marion Superintendent Chris Arrington is proud.

“We were near the bottom for the last few years (when compared with schools in the Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District and surrounding area). When looking at the seven different tests, we are at the top in four of the seven and in the middle of the pack for the other three tests when compared to the ISD and contiguous schools (Marion, Manton, McBain, Cadillac, Clare, Lake City, Pine River, Evart, Farwell and Harrison).‘

Although there are still improvements to be made, Arrington said to have a turnaround like that at the elementary level is, in his words, “epic.‘



Improvement initiatives

By Rick Charmoli, Victoria Martin, Chris Lamphere and Karen Hopper Usher

Every superintendent with which the Cadillac News spoke about school test results had plans and programs that either could or already are making a difference in test scores.




In Buckley, where overall MSTEP and PSAT proficiency averaged 39% (with the highest scores in 4th grade English language arts, 62%), the school district has received a grant to help economically disadvantaged students.

The “Building Healthy Communities‘ grant means the school will be able to help kids with some of their basic needs, according to Superintendent and Elementary Principal Jessica Harrand, who cited healthy food and movement breaks as examples of basic needs.

“All of those things that help us be good learners,‘ Harrand said.

That’s important because there can sometimes be a stark difference between how kids from economically disadvantaged families perform on the MSTEP.

One striking example is in 3rd grade math in Buckley, where just 25% of kids from economically disadvantaged families received proficient scores, compared to 75% of kids from comparatively wealthy families.

It was one of the biggest differences between economically disadvantaged and “non-economically disadvantaged‘ students in all 10 districts.

“I think (MSTEP tests) are designed for the economically advantaged students to do well on,‘ Harrand said.

Our coverage area has more poor kids than rich kids.

In fact, across the 10 districts, economically disadvantaged students took approximately 6,660 MSTEP tests while non-economically disadvantaged students took approximately 4,086 tests (that’s not the same thing as total number of students because most students took multiple tests; additionally, the state withheld some data because of small population sizes).

If the “Building Healthy Communities‘ grant helps Buckley students, however, you probably won’t see it reflected in MSTEP scores right away.

Instead, you’ll see it in attendance rates and performance on “screener‘ assessments, Harrand said.




In Marion, where the superintendent described the school’s turnaround as “epic,‘ curriculum changes helped students score higher on the tests.

The school also worked to improve the testing culture at the school, Arrington said. He praised the elementary staff.

Content specialists have helped students in Buckley, Superintendent Harrand said. Last year’s 4th graders, 62% of whom were proficient in English language arts, received the district’s highest proficiency rates. Buckley elementary students rotate through teachers who specialize in their subjects, instead of being with just one teacher all day, every day.

“That is a huge piece of why we’re seeing this jump,‘ Harrand said.

Changing curriculum takes time.

Social studies scores in the elementary schools were quite low; in Evart, just 5% of 5th graders were proficient on the test (that was the lowest proficiency rate in any grade in any subject across all 10 districts). Marion, had the area’s best 5th grade social studies MSTEP proficiency rate at 23%.

But changes last year in the state’s social studies requirements could be to blame.

It’ll be a year or two before textbook companies and teachers can create content to the new standards, Harrand estimated.

In Lake City, educators expected lower scores because they’re in the middle of a “rebuild‘ of intervention and tiered instruction programs, Lake City Area Schools Superintendent Kim Blaszak said.

“Some of it is not a surprise to us,‘ Blaszak said. “We knew it was probably going to take around three years to implement (the new programs). It takes a while to get all those things lined up and in place.‘

Lake City is in the process of fully implementing an instructional system based off data they’ve collected from various assessment tests and expect much better scores during the next round of MSTEP and PSAT testing, she said.



Who is ready for college?

By Karen Hopper Usher and Rick Charmoli

The area’s high school students might struggle in college.

In Michigan, 11th graders take the College Board SAT. The results are said to indicate whether there’s a 75% chance the student will achieve at least a “C‘ in a first-semester college course.

Here, too, Michigan students and local students lag.

While just over half of local 11th-graders were college-ready in English, that’s less than the state percentage.

Statewide, 55.3% of 11th-grade test-takers are college-ready based on SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores, while just 36.3% are college-ready based on the math portion of the test.

Of the 743 students who took the test in the 10 public school districts, just 249, or 33.5%, received college-ready math scores. In English, 391 of the 743 test-takers, or 52.6%, were college-ready.

At the high school level, Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Jen Brown said Cadillac outperformed that state average by more than 12% on the ELA and more than 14% on the math.

“We are very proud of the hard work of our staff and students to make such gains on the SAT test,‘ Brown said. “Our focus this year is on each student. We are committed to providing personalized educational experiences so that each student is supported and challenged in meeting his/her educational goals.‘

In Marion, Arrington said the scores on ELA, math, social studies and the SAT were not horrible but they did show there was a need for improvement. When comparing the scores of Marion junior high and high school students with the scores of students in Manton, McBain, Cadillac, Clare, Lake City, Pine River, Evart, Farwell and Harrison, Arrington said his district’s scores were in the middle of the pack.

While they will continue to work on improving those scores, Arrington said he also believes the strides made at the elementary levels will help to improve scores at the secondary level.

“The way we increased the scores (in the elementary) we feel that will continue in the future. That will only help our secondary scores in the future,‘ he said. “The secondary will inherit those students and the hope is they will continue to build upon their successes.‘

Cadillac News