By Jason Burns
On March 26, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) announced that M-STEP, the system of standardized tests adopted by MDE for this school year, will remain Michigan’s standardized assessment system for at least three more years. This announcement was somewhat surprising as M-STEP was originally intended to be administered this year only until a long-term assessment solution could be adopted beginning with the 2015-2016 school year. Given the many planned changes to Michigan’s system of assessments, the decision to continue using M-STEP will reduce the burden that learning a new assessment program places on educators.
Assessment Changes in Michigan
As discussed in an earlier Green & Write post, M-STEP began as a short-term replacement for Michigan’s MEAP test, which was the state’s system of exams for 4 decades. M-STEP was created as a response to a June 2014 law that required MDE to develop new assessments for the 2014-2015 school year rather than implement assessments designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), as had been planned.
This legislation required MDE to accept bids for a new assessment system beyond the 2014-2015 school year. Bids were accepted last fall and reviewed by a Joint Evaluation Committee that consisted of school administrators, intermediate school district officials, and individuals with expertise in content, special education, and English Language Learners.
The New Testing Contract
According to a press release from MDE, contracts for $103.7 million have been awarded to Data Recognition Corporation and Measurement, Inc. to continue M-STEP through 2018, though the state can opt to renew the contract for up to five additional years. Both companies are currently under contract for this year’s M-STEP.
These contracts will become effective once they are approved by the State Administrative Board.
Strengths of Keeping M-STEP
The MDE press release points to the benefits of continuing with M-STEP rather than implementing another new system of assessments next year.
Mike Flanagan, State Superintendent, said of the decision to continue with M-STEP “This fortunate outcome will give this year’s tests greater significance and be a foundation from which to build.”
The main benefit is that next year’s M-STEP will fully meet the requirements of Michigan’s testing law, requirements that would be difficult or impossible to meet if another assessment system were adopted.
The law that required MDE to develop new assessments stipulates that assessments have to be field tested before statewide implementation, which forced MDE to draw heavily on the SBAC assessments in the creation of M-STEP because SBAC assessments had been field tested in Michigan. However, according to an assessment transition document from MDE, this means that only parts of the grades 3-8 assessments for English language arts (ELA) and math meet the field-tested criteria. This year’s M-STEP assessments will thus serve as a field test of the remaining ELA and math questions as well as sections on science and social studies. Data from this field test will then be used to refine M-STEP so that its assessments meet the legal requirements of validity and reliability.
What all of this means is that next year’s M-STEP will be considered an accurate measure of students’ learning, which can be helpful to parents, educators, and policy makers. The scores that parents receive will be a better reflection of what their children know, thus helping them make decisions about how to best support their child’s learning. Teachers and administrators will also benefit from having higher quality data that can be used to plan and evaluate curriculum and instruction. Additionally, the continuation of M-STEP allows district and local administrators to build on the changes they have made to prepare for this year’s M-STEP rather than having to start over with a new assessment program.
Lastly, the higher quality data from next year’s M-STEP will help policy makers reach more informed decisions about the evaluation of schools and possibly teachers. Differences in students’ performance between assessments can lead to different evaluation scores or rankings depending on which test is used, making it especially difficult to compare performance over time when new assessment systems are adopted. Continuing with M-STEP, rather than adopting a different assessment system, will alleviate this issue.
Issues With Keeping M-STEP
The main issue with keeping M-STEP versus adopting a different assessment system is in how school officials may approach this year’s assessments. Prior to this decision, officials could have reasonably believed that M-STEP was a “lame duck” assessment, meaning that students would take the assessment, but results would carry little overall meaning because a new set of assessments was scheduled to be adopted next year. The assessment transition document from MDE supports this conclusion by stating that no consequences will be applied based on the results of this year’s M-STEP. Viewing this year’s assessments as inconsequential may have impacted how some schools and districts allocated resources, including instructional time, to preparing students for this year’s M-STEP.
However, the decision to continue M-STEP in future years raises the stakes of this year’s assessments. Results from the 2015 administration, which may now be considered largely a field test, will influence the version of M-STEP that students take beginning next year. Also, results from this year’s M-STEP may be used as a baseline to compare school performance over time, meaning that this year’s results may impact future school evaluations.
The Big Picture
The decision to continue M-STEP has net benefits, especially considering the resources that would be needed to transition to another assessment system. While some issues with this year’s assessments have been reported, these largely stem from changes to Michigan law that required a new assessment to be developed-normally a three year process according to MDE-in 9 months. Barring additional sudden changes, future M-STEP administrations should proceed much more smoothly.
Overall, keeping M-STEP for 2016 and beyond will save time and money. Had a new assessment system been adopted, administrators would have had to divert human and financial resources away from other tasks in order to provide professional development on new assessments. In addition to attending professional development, teachers would have had to spend time familiarizing themselves with the format of a new assessment for the third time in three years. Continuing with M-STEP will enable teachers to spend this time becoming more familiar with M-STEP or supporting their students. Put simply, keeping M-STEP enables teachers and schools to focus their resources on educating their students rather than orienting themselves toward yet another assessment system.
Jason Burns – firstname.lastname@example.org