Report Finds Wide Gaps in Michigan Student Achievement Still Exist, Surpassing Pre-Pandemic Levels

The disparities between Michigan’s lowest and highest performing K-8 students have widened beyond expectations since the start of the pandemic, and some students are falling even further behind, according to an analysis of benchmark testing results published this week.

However, the study findings indicate that the students and districts that experienced the most learning loss have also shown the strongest academic recovery.

“Overall, the results indicate that progress is being made, but it is gradual, especially considering the significant impact of the pandemic,” said Tara Kilbride, interim associate director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, the research group responsible for the analysis. “Addressing this issue will require a long-term, multiyear effort.”

The analysis examined evaluations administered to Michigan students every fall and spring since 2020, and captured the extent of student growth in comparison to national trends prior to the pandemic.

According to the report, student achievement in the state slightly improved in math and made very little progress in reading as of spring 2021.

In fall 2020, Michigan students were performing at the 42nd percentile nationally in math, indicating that 58% of students in the country performed better. By spring 2021, Michigan students dropped to the 39th percentile. However, they returned to the 42nd percentile by spring 2023.

The delay in administering benchmark assessments until after in-person learning was halted in March 2020 suggests that students are likely still lagging behind in math compared to pre-pandemic levels.

In reading, students in the state fell from the 51st percentile in fall 2020 to the 45th percentile in spring 2021. There has been little improvement in reading outcomes since then.

“The differences in recovery align with findings seen in other states across the country, particularly in math,” said Kilbride. “However, reading outcomes in other states have been more varied, and Michigan falls somewhere in the middle.”

According to the report, the districts most impacted by the pandemic, which serve more diverse populations of students from low-income families in urban areas, demonstrated the strongest recovery. The accelerated learning rates in these districts drove overall growth at the state level.

Based on the assessment results in the report, Michigan students are making progress that aligns with what would be expected in a typical school year prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, some students are still falling behind as their learning pace is not fast enough to catch up.

A similar trend is observed nationwide, according to researchers.

“We are making only very slow progress,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the University of Washington. “To recover lost learning, the pace of learning needs to be considerably faster, and that is not happening.”

Goldhaber expressed concern over the national state of recovery, as test scores strongly predict students’ future performance.

Benchmark assessments offer advantages to researchers and policymakers compared to the annual M-STEP standardized test results, as they provide a clearer measure of student growth from fall to spring within a school year. Some assessments also indicate how well students are performing beyond their grade level.

According to Goldhaber, these assessments can be more informative than letter grades or report cards in helping parents understand their children’s performance.

“Grades are actually higher than they were before the pandemic, and they do not seem to align with test scores,” he said. “The meaning of an ‘A’ in terms of knowledge assessed by the test is different now. I worry that parents may receive false signals about their students’ performance from grades and should pay more attention to the tests.”

However, the assessment results have limitations. The analysis only included assessments from approximately 773,000 out of Michigan’s 947,000 K-8 students, representing 769 out of 852 school districts in the state.

Due to legislation passed in 2020, which required Michigan districts to administer the benchmark assessments, districts had multiple options for approved test providers. Consequently, students who transferred districts were not included in the analysis.

In addition, many students missed the testing dates.

“Some of the reasons students did not take the tests are the same reasons why they may have been more severely affected by the pandemic,” said Kilbride. “This could mean that our results paint a more positive picture than what actually occurred.”

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@bridgemi.com.

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