Higher Test Standards Reveal Michigan Education Deficiency

Published November 17, 2011

Michigan’s department of education recently raised the scores required for students to rank “proficient” on state tests, revealing at least two-thirds fewer Michigan students can read and write at grade level than previously reported. In Detroit, no grade level in the district has more than 15 percent of students proficient in math.

Starting this school year, Michigan has raised the “cut scores” that mark a student as advanced, proficient, partially proficient, or not proficient. Students previously had to get just 39 percent of questions right on state tests to pass; they now must get at least 65 percent correct to do so.

State officials applied the new standards to the past four years of tests to give schools and districts a sense of where they might land this year. The effect was dramatic, In third grade, statewide math scores dropped from 95 percent proficient to 35 percent proficient.

“Parents and other advocacy groups exerted pressure to get this stuff right to get a fair measure of how their schools are actually performing,” said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Michigan-based Mackinac Center. He also credited comparisons between Michigan’s tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which for years placed Michigan students “at the bottom compared to the rest of the country.”

Calling Everyone Proficient
The new standards rate 29 percent of Michigan eighth graders proficient or advanced in math, and 57 percent proficient or advanced in reading in fall 2010, the latest scores available. They place 35 percent of third graders proficient or advanced in math, and 64 percent proficient or advanced in reading.

Making enough gains to reach widespread proficiency could take five to 10 years, said Robert Floden, co-chairman of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University.

“At a certain point, we have to challenge ourselves to do better,” Van Beek said. “Where’s the incentive to improve if we’re calling all kids proficient?”

Freed from NCLB Consequences
The change is also likely related to the federal No Child Left Behind law expiring and being waived by the Obama administration, Van Beek said. NCLB required states to have all children rate proficient on state tests by 2014, leading many states to adopt extremely low standards for proficiency.

“[State officials] are a little more courageous about setting high standards because they feel it’s less likely the federal government will come in and whack them for not meeting the 2014 proficiency mark,” Van Beek said.

He says the more accurate measures will lend urgency to state efforts at education reforms such as expanding charter schools and open enrollment policies.

“It is a good thing for citizens to know how well their schools are doing, so it is desirable that proficiency standards be set at an appropriate level,” said Paul Peterson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  “All things considered, I think Michigan has made the right decision.” 

Image by Brad Barth