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Nov. 15, 2023

Michigan student achievement improved but still behind pre-pandemic levels

Math achievement for K-8 students in Michigan has improved slightly and reading achievement has stayed about the same since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from Michigan State University's Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education. However, despite these signs of improvement, this growth was not the same for all students in the state and overall performance is still below pre-pandemic norms.

The report uses scores from benchmark assessments like NWEA-MAP, which are used for progress monitoring throughout the country, from the 2020-21 to 2022-23 school years. The aim is to provide policymakers, educators and stakeholders with this information as they direct resources and design policies and programs aimed at accelerating learning.

Average math scores for Michigan students in fall 2020 were at about the 42nd percentile compared to nationwide results on the same tests before the pandemic, declining to the 39th percentile by spring 2021 and eventually returning to the 42nd percentile by spring 2023. Reading scores also declined during the 2020-21 school year, falling from the 51st to the 45th percentile between fall 2020 and spring 2021, and have not changed substantially since then.

“These benchmark assessments, much like the state assessment, indicate in some areas growth emerging from the pandemic,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice. “Michigan’s educators worked hard to help students continue to rebound and to increase their learning. State funding investments over the past two years will provide more direct resources and support for educators and students to keep progressing, particularly in the area of early literacy.”

Michigan students’ achievement levels vary to a greater extent than would have been expected before the pandemic, based on national norms. For example, the top scoring Michigan students are only slightly below where the top scoring students in the nation were before the pandemic, whereas Michigan lowest-scoring students are very far below the lowest-scoring students in the pre-pandemic national distribution. This suggests that Michigan’s lowest-scoring students were disproportionately affected by disrupted learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Headshot of Tara Kilbride.
Tara Kilbride is the interim associate director of EPIC, housed in MSU's College of Education. Courtesy photo.

According to Tara Kilbride, interim associate director of EPIC, this may mean that students’ learning needs are more varied now.

“It will be important to continue monitoring how individual students are doing and tailor instructional supports to meet them where they are,” Kilbride said. “Academic recovery isn’t going to happen overnight and will require resources and ongoing monitoring.”  

But students are continuing to make progress and were more likely to reach targets for typical growth in 2022-23 than in 2020-21 or 2021-22. More than half of students reached the median yearly growth for a typical school year, suggesting that, on average, student learning returned to or surpassed pre-pandemic rates. However, for students who were already behind at the beginning of the year, a typical year’s learning gains will not be enough to catch up in one year.

Groups of districts and students that were most affected by the pandemic also experienced the most learning recovery. The study shows that the overall improvements in students’ growth outcomes are driven primarily by districts that operated in a remote or hybrid format for part or all of the 2020-21 school year. These districts are more likely to be in urban areas, serve more diverse student populations and have more students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Accelerated rates of learning in these districts led not only to improvements in average achievement and growth outcomes at the state level but also improvements in achievement gaps that worsened during earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While this report helps to deepen understanding of how Michigan public school students progressed and learned during the past three school years, the authors stress the limitations of the data. The analyses in the report represent only a subset of the K-8 student population across the state, and prior research has shown that the pandemic has had a greater negative effect on achievement and growth for the specific student populations who tend to be underrepresented in the data.

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