Report: Michigan Students Scored Below Pre-pandemic Levels Across Most Grades

A new report from Michigan State University in East Lansing found that achievement and growth for Michigan students slowed over the course of the 2020-21 school year, with fewer reaching expected growth targets in fall 2021 than before the pandemic.
Bored Girl Sitting Lying Head On Desk Whilst Home-Schooling With Laptop During Health Pandemic
A new report from Michigan State University shows students fell behind growth targets as the 2021-22 school year progressed. // Stock Photo

A new report from Michigan State University in East Lansing found that achievement and growth for Michigan students slowed over the course of the 2020-21 school year, with fewer reaching expected growth targets in fall 2021 than before the pandemic.

This is not unique to Michigan, but echoes findings from other research in districts and states across the U.S. consistently showing lower average achievement and less than typical achievement growth than would have been expected for similar students before the pandemic.

This is the third in a series of reports from MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education, or MDE. This report incorporates new results from student test scores from the fall of the 2021-22 school year to update previous analyses and continue to monitor student progress.

For the first time in 2020-21, benchmark assessments such as the NWEA MAP Growth assessment — the test used by the majority of Michigan school districts ­— were required by the state as part of the “Return to Learn” law. Tests like the NWEA MAP were given at least twice during the year to measure student progress toward academic goals.

This latest report examines how student achievement trends for Michigan compare to national or state trends before the pandemic, whether students made progress toward growth targets, and how much achievement trends vary across groups of students.

To answer these questions, EPIC used kindergarten to eighth grade mathematics and reading benchmark assessment data from fall 2021 and, when available, prior test score data from the 2020-2021 school year. The analyses included benchmark assessment results from about 750,000 of Michigan’s kindergarten to eighth grade students in 735 school districts.

During the fall of 2020, Michigan students were scoring close to pre-pandemic numbers. This suggests that although students experienced major disruptions to their instruction during the first phase of the pandemic in late spring 2020, they still performed about as well in fall 2020 as students who took the same test before the pandemic.

By fall 2021, however, Michigan students tended to score below pre-pandemic levels across most grade levels with the trend more pronounced in mathematics than reading. Three-quarters of Michigan students demonstrated growth from fall 2020 to fall 2021, but at slower rates than before the pandemic.

Student growth targets represent the median growth for students with similar prior achievement scores before the pandemic. In a typical year, about 50 percent of students would be expected to reach these growth targets. However, only 40 percent of students reached their targets from fall 2020 to fall 2021. Further, 24 percent did not demonstrate any growth at all, meaning their scores decreased or did not change from fall 2020 to fall 2021.

“The most concerning finding from this report is that a large proportion of students exhibited no learning gains at all during the 2020-21 school year, at least as measured by their benchmark assessments,” says Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC and the Clifford Erickson distinguished professor of education at MSU. “These kids will not simply ‘catch up’ over time. We need direct investments targeted at these particular students to ensure that they recover from the pandemic’s interruptions.”

“The legislature’s requirement that students take benchmark assessments has made it possible for us to understand how learning rates differed across student groups, and to determine that a substantial group of students made no progress as measured by these assessments over the course of the year. It will be imperative to continue tracking student progress to ensure that resources can be directed to the students most in need.”

Long-standing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps persisted into the 2021-2022 school year but did not appear to grow over the course of the pandemic. The disparities tended to be largest for upper elementary (third- to fifth-grade) students, followed by middle school (sixth- to eighth-grade) students.

On average, Black students scored between the 15th and 22nd percentiles of white students’ math scores, while Latino/a students scored between the 30th and 32nd percentiles and Asian students scored between the 67th and 76th percentiles.

Economically disadvantaged students on average scored between the 18th and 25th percentiles of students who are not economically disadvantaged. These achievement gaps are a serious concern, but not a new one; they are comparable in size to achievement gaps on Michigan’s M-STEP and PSAT assessments in 2018-2019.

“In spite of the hard and in many cases heroic work of students, educators, and community members, the disruption of the pandemic has had an adverse impact on students academically, socially, emotionally and physically,” says Michael Rice, state superintendent.

“As we begin to better fund schools and by extension to better support students, we must fill in the gaps and address delayed or disrupted learning from the last two years. This work is particularly critical and must be especially targeted for those students who, either by district decision or parent choice, were educated remotely last year.”

The researchers caution that all the results must be placed in context of the imperfect data available to analyze student learning during the pandemic. Participation rates in benchmark assessments were lower than for summative year-end tests in pre-pandemic years, especially for kindergarteners. Moreover, the students who did take part in these assessments do not reflect Michigan’s overall student population. In addition, benchmark assessments are only one indicator of student learning and well-being. EPIC will continue this line of research, both with case studies of districts and additional data analysis when spring 2022 test scores become available after this school year ends.

The full report is available here.