The 2018 Michigan test scores for K-12 students were released today and the sound of that announcement was like hearing fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

With Michigan slipping toward the bottom rungs of the nation’s 50-state education system, the newest results show that the state’s test scores have dropped even further this year. In some cases, the numbers mark the fourth consecutive decline in English language arts, math and social studies. In many cases, the percentage of kids who passed the test is shockingly low.

The dividing line within the statewide scores splits those kids who were “proficient” or advanced in a particular subject vs. those who were not proficient or partially proficient – meaning they essentially failed the test. Basically, most students across the spectrum are failing to learn what the exam says they need to know in their grade level.

Among third-graders, nearly 56 percent failed the English test, which measures reading, writing and listening skills. Similarly, less than half passed the English exams administered in grades 4-8.

On the math tests, nearly 66 percent of eighth-graders failed their exams. The best result in the math category was in the 3rd grade, where close to half passed.

In the area of social studies, more than 80 percent of fifth-graders failed the exam. The best performance here was among 11th-graders, high school juniors, where almost half passed their version of the social studies exam.

Of course, the bottom line is that the entire system is a failure.

Nothing seems to be working

The latest version of the standardized tests for 3rd through 8th graders, plus high school juniors – the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP – was designed to more accurately measure students’ proficiency and improvement in basic subject matter. Since its debut in 2015, the M-STEP exam has delivered nothing but bad news.

As Bridge Magazine reported this morning: “Despite years of education reform, millions of dollars in targeted spending, closures of underperforming schools and the impending threat of flunking third-graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading, scores on the M-STEP sank even lower this past school year in most grades and test subjects.”

The state has poured nearly $1.1 billion into early childhood education for years while seeking to improve literacy by hiring reading coaches and providing targeted student assistance at the local level.

As was the case when last year’s scores were announced, the State Department of Education offers happy talk, claiming that the gains from those $1 billion efforts will be felt soon. State education officials point to the tiniest gains to make their case.

“The third and fourth-graders in school today are the kids who are benefitting from the investments in early childhood education programs over the past several years,” said Sheila Alles, interim state superintendent.

When the numbers are broken down into demographic categories, the achievement gap between minorities/poor kids and everyone else is appalling.

The M-STEP tests, administered last spring, found that less than 10 percent of Detroit students were proficient on eight of the 15 tests taken across seven grades and covering three subjects. M-STEP scores were worse in Flint, where fewer than 8 percent of all students were proficient in English and fewer than 5 percent in math.

Glaring gaps between rich and poor

Across the state, glaring gaps exist between poor students overall and those who live in a financially stable household. For example, just 30 percent of students in poverty were proficient in English, compared to 62 percent of kids who aren’t poor. The gap in math was 54-22 percent.

As Michigan’s leaders contemplate this K-12 education crisis, one group of reformers, with substantial support from the business community, has offered a laudable response: Do everything we can to make Michigan a Top 10 education state by 2030.

At the same time, some defensive education officials offer a laughable response. One supposed “bright spot” for the Detroit school district was the revelation that third-grade English proficiency scores rose from 9.9 percent in 2017 to 11.3 percent in 2018. That is something worth celebrating?

Standardized tests remain a controversial matter in nearly every state as teaching professionals question whether the exams adequately link to the curriculum taught in classrooms. Michigan teachers’ unions can try to blame the test, but the annual statewide exam has undergone three overhauls over the past decade. The latest move by state lawmakers for 2018 was to simply shorten the M-STEP test and hope that would produce better results. If only it was that simple.

In many ways, Michigan has been in crisis mode for many years. The Flint water crisis continues. The auto industry faced a near meltdown. The “lost decade” marked an ongoing economic decline that put Michigan on the map for all the wrong reasons. The troubled Enbridge oil pipeline continues to menace the beloved Mackinac straits. And the state’s pothole-pocked roads have become a spring ritual.

Yet, education is different, isn’t it? It’s a broad-based economic issue that relates to Michigan schools providing a talented workforce for existing employers and potential employers.

In addition, it’s a moral issue. If our kids cannot attain the knowledge that leads to a post-high school college education or a vocational skill, that will affect them – and our state – in myriad ways for decades.

If today’s elementary school students fail to learn in a failed educational system, posting mediocre test scores all the way to high school, some will drop out. Some will drift toward attaining a diploma that means little. Those “graduates” will probably struggle financially throughout their lives.

Gubernatorial hopefuls Getchen Whitmer and Bill Schuette, and the hundreds of candidates for state House and state Senate, better do their homework before the November elections. Because the alarm has been sounded too many times.

The state’s education crisis could reverberate for well more than a generation if our political leaders don’t step up to the chalkboard and sketch out realistic solutions that will give our kids a better chance at success.