LANSING — Recently released scores show mid-Michigan students suffered significant learning loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic as performance on state standardized tests dropped at Greater Lansing schools.
Fewer than half of third graders — about 45% — at 20 mid-Michigan school districts in 2020-21 scored proficient or better on the English and language arts section of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress last spring. That’s down from when the test was last required in 2019 when English and language arts proficiency hovered at about 50% for mid-Michigan third graders.
“We, like everyone else … have seen a sharp decline compared to our scores from 2019, before the pandemic. That’s not shocking. That’s not overwhelming for us,” said East Lansing Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham. “Students came back from all kinds of different learning situations and responded. Whether it be at home online or in a building with a mask on. It was very challenging.”
COVID-19 prompted schools to close for the final few months of the 2019-20 school year and officials canceled the annual test. Schools had the option of administering the M-STEP in the 2020-21 school year. The requirement that students take the test was reimplemented in 2022.
The 2020-21 M-STEP scores, released last week, were down across Michigan. About 41.6% of third graders scored at least proficient in English language arts statewide, down from about 45.1% in 2019. And the number of third graders posting proficient or better scores in mathematics also fell, from about 46.7% to 41.5%.
Falling statewide reading scores follow the downward trend of reading scores nationwide. Nationally, reading scores for 9-year-old students saw the largest drop in more than 30 years and math scores fell for the first time in decades.
The latest M-STEP results show students’ academic performance is worsening, continuing a trend that began before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Trust-Midwest Executive Director Amber Arellano said.
“While it would be easy to wave off these results and say they were expected because of the traumatic past two years of unfinished learning during COVID-19, the truth is that our state has been behind our peers across the nation for far too long, and long before the pandemic,” Arellano said in a statement.
While test scores in the region were down, the dropoff was not even throughout the area.
Okemos Public Schools had the most students score proficient or better on the third-grade English and language arts section, about 67.6%, the fourth-grade English and language arts, 78.4%, and mathematics sections, 64.7%, and the fifth- and sixth-grade English and language arts sections at about 71.2% and 69.9% respectively. DeWitt Public Schools students led with the most proficient or better test scores in the third- and seventh-grade math sections at 72.5% and 59.9%, in addition to the seventh-grade English and language arts section, at about 69.6%
Haslett Public Schools topped the area in proficient or better in the fifth- and sixth-grade math sections at 51.5% and 61.5%, respectively.
Among area school districts, Lansing School District posted the lowest test scores overall, with the number of students posting proficient or better scores falling in the mathematics and English and language arts section at every grade level tested.
Reading proficiency scores for Lansing School District third graders fell to 16.6% proficient or better in the English and language arts section. Those scores were down from 29.6% on the 2017-18 test to 23.8% on the 2018-19 test when all students were last required to take the test.
Less than 20% of students in third through seventh grade scored proficient or better in both the English and language arts and mathematics sections of the test.
Lansing School District officials did not respond to requests for comment.
In-person classes made a difference
Educators lay the blame for some of the learning loss on the need for remote learning because of the pandemic.
The recent results from the M-STEP give educators and administrators data illustrating the severity of the learning loss that resulted during the months of learning students completed outside of their classrooms and away from teachers.
“I have no doubt that students that were with their teachers in-person longer probably fared better. That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Mitcham said. “That, to me, were the results of the experiment that we didn’t want to partake in, but were forced to.
“But it’s clear that time with teachers is crucial to learning,” he added.
Findings in a study by the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, within Michigan State University’s College of Education, supported the importance of students spending time in a classroom.
According to the study, Michigan students who spent the entire 2020-21 school year learning remotely performed lower compared to students in school districts that offered fully or partial in-person learning.
“(The connection between in-person learning and academic success is) not perfect. There could be other things related to remote learning playing a role,” said Scott Imberman, a professor of economics and education policy at MSU and an affiliated faculty member of EPIC. “But it’s sizable enough that I’m convinced there’s something there.”
But comparing school districts that spent more time in-person against districts that spent more time in remote learning doesn’t provide any clear takeaways. In Michigan, districts that spent more time offering in-person learning tended to be more rural or more wealthy, with lower COVID-19 rates and lower death rates, said Katharine Strunk, MSU professor of education policy and the faculty director of EPIC.
‘Going back to the basics’
Just as important to student success in Eaton Rapids Public Schools was keeping students in school once they returned, Superintendent Bill DeFrance said.
When comparing the most recent M-STEP results with 2019, Eaton Rapids students saw improvements in more sections compared with the other 19 districts reviewed, including an 8-percentage point increase in third graders scoring proficient or better on the English and language arts section, a 0.5-percentage point increase in third-grade proficiency in the mathematics section, a 3.5-percentage point increase in sixth-grade mathematics proficiency and a 1.7-percentage point increase in seventh-grade English and language arts proficiency.
For 2020-21, the district was able to limit the number of times it had to close buildings or isolate classrooms because of COVID-19 exposure, allowing more uninterrupted learning for students, he said.
“We wore masks for half the year,” DeFrance said. “But we didn’t have the disruptions because of outbreaks.”
The district also tracked student health, as well as teacher health. DeFrance said most teachers remained healthy and the district avoided having to heavily rely on substitute teachers.
“The fact is, I think we did a pretty good job of going back to the basics,” DeFrance said. “We have worked really hard at meeting the kids where they’re at. Kids are at different places coming out of COVID.”
Applying the lessons of the data
With the M-STEP scores in hand, schools have more data to consider as they determine where students need help the most.
“If we know how to teach kids more than a year’s worth of instruction in a year, we’d have been doing that more regularly even before the pandemic,” Strunk said.
Funding has helped. Federal COVID-19 relief funding has aided schools, but it’s temporary, which limits what schools can do. The state’s $19-billion school aid budget, which includes a $450-per-pupil funding increase to $9,150 per student, gives schools the funding needed to update the curriculum, or hire teachers and counselors — although with the current shortage of instructors, filling positions will remain a challenge.
East Lansing Public Schools has focused its efforts on summer school offerings. At the end of the last school year, Mitcham said, the district identified students who needed support and tried enrolling them in summer school, reaching out to them in every form, from phone calls and emails to text messages.
“That was a huge effort we made and we think we’ll see some results from that,” Mitcham said.