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Test scores have schools bracing for third-grade reading law

Taylor Owens

Staff Writer

Michigan recently released the M-STEP scores from the last school year, and district officials are working to parse the data – especially when it comes to third-grade reading.

The Read by Grade Three Law, which was passed in 2016, goes into effect this fall, and schools have been using all three years to prepare for it. The law requires third students who are a year or more behind in reading to be held back.

The state uses M-STEP scores to determine if students need to be held back, although educators say the test isn't the best indicator of where students are at – something even the state points out.

“Summative assessments like the M-STEP are a snapshot taken at one moment in time and reflect only a very small portion of a student’s education,” state Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice said last week in a Michigan Department of Education press release announcing that the embargo had been lifted from the M-STEP scores.

In the M-STEP scores from the end of the 2018-19 school year, some Barry County schools dropped in third grade English language arts proficiency from the 2017-18 assessment, and some improved. Delton Kellogg went from 30.4 percent of students categorized as advanced or proficient to 19.2, Hastings dropped from 49.1 to 41.3, Maple Valley increased 28.8 to 37.7, Lakewood fell from 65 to 48.2 and Thornapple Kellogg climbed from 51.3 to 55.7. The state average for third grade English went up slightly, from 44.4 to 45.1.

The state warned that the scores don't tell the whole story in a note at the bottom of their statement: “2019 M-STEP English language arts proficiency scores for third grade cannot be correlated to predict the possible student retention impact of Michigan’s Read By Grade Three law, which goes into effect next year. A unique and separate cut score for the third grade ELA test was established to distinctly measure reading, as outlined in the law.”

That “unique and separate cut score” was not posted.

“The M-STEP is a snapshot in time, one day at the end of a year,” Thornapple Kellogg Superintendent Rob Blitchok said. “Third grade is the first grade students even take the M-STEP.”

Most schools use the Northwest Evaluation Association tests to determine student growth. Like many of its peers, Maple Valley has NWEA assessments three times a year, which Superintendent Dr. Katherine Bertolini said is more effective than the single day of the M-STEP.

“Any one thing could throw off a child's day,” Bertolini said.

Maple Valley Data and Assessment Coordinator Jeff Byrne pointed out that the test also changes each year, depending on the state's philosophy toward the test at the time.

“If they left the test the same year after year, then we'd have a true judgment, but it's constantly different,” Byrne said.

“Year-to-year comparisons of state assessment results can be problematic,” Deputy Superintendent Dr. Venessa Keesler said in the release. “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.”

The state also has been trying to shorten the length of the test, but that can mean whole skill sets are assessed by one or two questions.

“That really does mess with that internal validity and reliability of it, because are you truly measuring the same thing?” Bertolini asked. “If they only have one or two test items to prove competency in a given standard - that's just tough.”

In addition, the state is concerned about being too specific about what's on the test, so it doesn't give away future questions, Byrne said. That means the schools are unable to glean what specific skills students might be struggling in.

“I don't argue with it as a point of consideration, in a multiple-point assessment,” Bertolini said. “But all by itself, I think it's a little dangerous to put too much stock in one measurement point, at one point in a year, in a child's life. You just need to be cautious when you interpret some of those things.”

“We did not see a correlation between our M-STEP scores and NWEA scores for reading,” Delton Kellogg Superintendent Kyle Corlett said. “Our third graders showed good growth in reading on NWEA, but our MSTEP scores were lower than we want them to be, so we're investigating to find out what there is that disconnect.”

Regardless of the issues educators may have with the M-STEP, it's the baseline for determining if students need to be held back, and schools have to prepare for it.

“We have worked tirelessly over the past four years in building a strong system foundation to use data to drive our instruction at the individual student level,” Hastings Area Schools Assistant Superintendent of Student Achievement Matt Goebel said. “We believe the strong professional development provided to our teachers, along with adopting a new reading curriculum, Reading Street, has provided the tools for our teachers and students to be successful.”

He pointed out that Hastings has increased literacy coaching for teachers, implemented phonics and phonemic awareness interventions for early literacy students and increased classes for students who are struggling with reading.

Although it takes nearly four months for the final M-STEP results to be released, NWEA results are available almost immediately, for each of the three tests throughout the year, allowing schools to quickly take steps to give students the help they need.

We put much more emphasis on NWEA reading and math and Acadience, five essential components of reading, assessments, which provide multiple data points within the school year for teachers to drive their instruction,” Goebel said. “This also allows us to communicate with parents regarding their child's growth and possible ways to assist them at home. This data allows teachers to create grade level and individual instruction plans throughout the school year, which is much more beneficial to the individual student.”

“We are implementing a brand new reading curriculum this year,” Corlett said. “We've changed our reading intervention times so that all students get support and not just those that are struggling.”

Delton has created a reading interventionist position for early elementary students, purchased new intervention materials and has an instructional coach focusing on reading instruction support for kindergarten through third grade teachers.

Thornapple Kellogg gives an individual reading plan at least three times a year to all kindergarten through third grade students who are performing under grade level. Those plans are updated in accordance with the NWEA scores, in addition to teacher and parent input.

“This, along with extra interventionists, summer tutoring, and multiple intervention strategies, helps us meet the needs of all our learners,” Blitchok said.

Byrne said involving parents in their elementary student's education is a key part of the equation. He pointed out the schools just can't cover all the material during the school day, so they need to involve parents in making sure kids are learning the material.

The training schools are doing also makes sure all the teachers are on the same page, Byrne said. They have documentation showing where the students are at, and staff members are trained in the same material so they are all speaking the same language when it comes to curriculum and intervention.

“We have a cohesive plan that's very comprehensive across levels, and I think that's why it's working,” Bertolini said.

“I think we have things in place for our third grade specifically, especially K-3, that the third grade reading law is not going to be an issue,” Byrne said. “Any students that are told to be held back by the state, we can put things in place, so that by the fall we have them caught up, I do not think it's going to be an issue at Maple Valley schools.”

Blitchok pointed out that the law has a number of exemptions, so students who test too low on the M-STEP can still pass to the fourth grade under certain circumstances. Those instances, called Good Cause Exceptions, can include students in special education, those who have been enrolled in the district less than two years, who are learning English as a second language or who have a documented plan for intensive intervention.

“Ultimately, it gives parents the right to request the no-retention option, and the school will support this,” Blitchok said.

Whether the state will even follow through with its decision to retain third-grade students is something that isn't settled in the minds of educators.

“You know how things get with the state. All of a sudden they could go, 'Well... let's not do that,' ” Byrne said. “But I want to keep these things in place, even if this whole law goes away, because it is helping students, more than we've ever helped them in reading at the K-3 level.”

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