Nov 16

Data Insights: Equipping students for success

11 / 16 / 15

Michigan’s continued student achievement stagnation means the state now ranks 41st in fourth-grade reading compared to states across the country—far from the top ten status that Governor Rick Snyder, State Superintendent Brian Whiston, and many other leaders statewide aim to reach on behalf of all Michigan students.

According to data released last month by the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the state’s fourth-graders fell from 38th to 41st in relative ranking for reading—falling behind Texas and Oklahoma. Michigan’s 4th- and 8th-grade student achievement in reading and mathematics remained virtually stagnant since 2013. The NAEP, the country’s only national assessment, provides comparable state-to-state school performance data.

“If Michigan stays on its current course, students are on track to rank at the bottom of all 50 states over the next decade,” says Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust–Midwest. “African American students, in particular, are being underserved—indeed, Michigan’s school performance for black students is nothing less than shameful.”

“Michigan needs a fresh approach to its educational delivery systems, making it far more effective and more helpful to local schools and educators,” Arellano adds. “If state and K-12 leaders do not change course, our students will continue to fall behind the rest of the world – and our economy will never fully flourish again. Michiganders need our leaders to commit to more strategic action and investment for all of our students, no matter where they live or who they are.”

The statistics are troubling, but one teacher in Kent County holds out hope for one very good reason: the students.

“We have amazing students with drive, interests, passion. They want to go out and do something for the community,” says Steve Rierson, a science teacher with Godfrey Lee Public Schools and GRCC. “Sometimes they are held back.. but not by their ability. So many other things hold kids back other than their ability.”

Rierson, a 20-year classroom veteran, says despite daunting challenges, students still have the potential to learn when they have rigorous instruction and a supportive environment.

“I don’t think any student is limited. They are capable,” he says. “It’s about how we help them develop the confidence, to have the faith in themselves, and then connect them to the content. When they sense that someone else sees that in them, they start to see it in themselves.”

Standardized tests in Michigan, however, present a complex set of standards. Rierson said in English and math, ACT and SAT tests assess very specific skills. In science, the assessments also cover critical thinking and problem solving and scientific process skills, which are more complex to convey and evaluate.

“The idea of designing one test for all the students runs against my intuition,” Rierson says. “When we first started this process several years ago, it was all math and English. Districts started moving funds into math and English, which limited science exposure. Now we are seeing the fruits of those decisions as those students are getting into middle and high school. The state keeps changing the rules on us, the district tries to adjust to be successful, and that can inadvertently open up gaps in other areas.”

In any subject, testing simply for knowledge is very past-century. Now that 87% of people in the U.S. have Google at their fingertips, the person with the most knowledge is not the most valuable, Rierson says. It’s learning how to apply that knowledge that has become the more important skill.

“We do a lot of lab reports, working in collaboration, learning it’s ok to design an experiment and learn that it doesn’t work,” he says. “Unfortunately a lot of the mindset in the assessment world is that there has to be one right answer and we have to ask for it on a test. Which makes a lot of creative people struggle when there are other ways they could have been successful.”

Rierson says that in his 20 years as an educator, the teaching of science has become more circular or cyclical than linear…. students go through a process, learn something, then do it again.

“That is much more connected to the current engineering world of constant trial and error… even if it isn’t an error, how can I further improve it,” he says. “When we focus so heavily on trying to cover so much of the ‘science knowledge content,’ and we all agree there is too much to cover, we lose the ability to have students explore science through excitement and inquiry and develop a curiosity to try something new.”

Despite the caveats about testing, it’s clear Michigan, and Kent County, cannot compete economically for the long term with current academic results.

Michigan’s African American students rank in last place in fourth-grade reading. Just two years ago, Michigan was 4th from the bottom, but has now been passed by Ohio, Wisconsin, and Maine.

While Michigan continues to stagnate or drop in achievement rank since 2013, others are improving. In Massachusetts, African Americans in fourth-grade reading rose from 14th in 2013 to number one this year. Boston and Chicago both made large gains in fourth-grade reading as well: Boston saw a 5 point scale score increase from 2013 on the NAEP for 4th grade reading; Chicago saw a 7 point increase.

Earlier this year, Ed Trust–Midwest highlighted Michigan’s troubling trajectory and need for change in our 2015 State of Michigan Education Report, Michigan Achieves: Becoming a Top Ten Education State. We also launched a new initiative, Michigan Achieves, to make Michigan a top 10 education state.

“Our public education system is in desperate need of a turnaround, and by learning from leading education states and systems, we can,” Arellano said. “Michigan Achieves sets key goals and policy guidance for making Michigan a top ten education state for all students by 2030.”

KConnect’s success measures and the Michigan Achieves goals are in close alignment. KConnect’s workgroups—Prenatal to 3rd Grade, 4th – 112th Grade, and High School to Career—are developing local strategies that have the potential to scale impact and improve outcomes across Kent County.

Learn about KConnect workgroups.

Learn about Michigan school data.