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Statewide reading decline: how some high-poverty schools buck the trend

Local low-income, high-Latino schools improve

The bad news: Michigan’s third-graders showed the greatest decline in reading proficiency compared with their test-taking peers in other states. The encouraging news: a few schools in Wyoming and Grand Rapids public schools are showing impressive results compared with students statewide, in both reading and math, despite high poverty rates and large Latino populations.

The schools have worked in partnership with the Steelcase Foundation and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) to implement models for building school-level system improvements in Michigan. They are among seven schools in Grand Rapids, Kelloggsville and Wyoming targeted to test innovative strategies in high-poverty schools.

Chart showing Michigan's negative improvement for early reading on state assessment
Third-grade reading scores for states in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which designed the M-STEP test taken by Michigan students. Source: 2018 State of Michigan Education Report, The Education Trust-Midwest

Closing the Gap

Students at Parkview Elementary in Wyoming, and Sibley and Stocking schools in Grand Rapids, saw marked improvements compared to their peers statewide on the 2016-17 M-STEP achievement test.

Parkview Elementary, Wyoming Public Schools  

  • Ranked in nearly the top 20th percentile for improvement in third-grade reading, and near the top 30th percentile for third-grade math improvement among all elementary schools statewide.
  • Saw progress for all students including Latino students, who make up 52 percent of enrollment, and low-income students, who make up 87 percent. Latino students improved by 5.6 percent, and low-income students by 6 percent since 2014-15. Similar progress was seen in math for both groups.

Sibley Elementary, Grand Rapids Public Schools

  • More than 42 percent of low-income third-graders scored proficient in reading, compared with 29 percent of low-income students and 44 percent of all students statewide. They also outpaced other low-income third-graders in GRPS and in Kent ISD.

Stocking Elementary, Grand Rapids Public Schools

  • More than 45 percent of Latino fifth-graders scored proficient in math, compared with 21 percent of Latino students and 35 percent of all students statewide. About 96 percent of Stocking’s students are low-income.

The long-term project seems to be helping so far at Wyoming’s Parkview Elementary, which a recent report finds is among the state’s highest-improving high-poverty schools in third-grade reading as well as math (see sidebar).

While it’s discouraging to see the state’s trends, “it is very hopeful to be a glimmer of light in an otherwise bleak picture,” said Principal Katie Jobson. “Parkview’s staff works really hard to meet the needs of students – and that range of needs is pretty wide – so it’s wonderful to see pay-off for the hard work.”

Stocking and Sibley elementary schools in Grand Rapids Public Schools also have shown impressive gains on state standardized tests, despite high levels of low-income students.

Comprehensive Study

The data on the statewide decline comes from a comparison of Michigan’s students’ performance to other states around the country.

The analysis by The Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan’s third-graders declined the most among states using the same testing model, despite nearly $80 million of targeted state investment to improve reading outcomes.

The report, Top Ten for Education: Not By Chance, delves deeply into the challenges Michigan schools and leaders face in raising student achievement. The report is part of the Michigan Achieves campaign, launched in 2015, to make Michigan a top ten education state by 2030.

Along with showing the steepest decline, Michigan students also are among the lowest-performing students nationwide for third-grade reading, considered one of the most important indicators of lifelong student success and employment. And on national assessments, Michigan fourth-graders have plummeted to 41st in reading scores since 2003, the report finds.

However, the report also highlights how Parkview, Sibley and Stocking schools bucked that downward trend by adopting research-based practices of higher-achieving states such as Tennessee. In working with Steelcase Foundation-funded staff for the CETL program, operated by The Education Trust-Midwest, those schools have shown marked improvements in a multi-year pilot program.

For instance, on the 2016-17 M-STEP assessments, low-income third-graders at Sibley Elementary scored higher in reading than their peers statewide, and Stocking Elementary’s Latino fifth-graders performed better in math than all Michigan students on average (see chart). Stocking also has shown strong gains in reading.

“Having Education Trust come alongside of us has made a difference in how we think and the capacity we have as a building to move forward,” said Stocking Principal JoAnn Riemersma.

Multiple Partners  
At Parkview Elementary in Wyoming, students ranked in nearly the top 20th percentile statewide for improvement in third-grade reading, and near the top 30th percentile for third-grade math improvement, according to the study. Parkview saw progress for all students including Latino students, and similar progress was seen in math.

Jobson, the principal, credits her school’s improvement to partnerships with The Education Trust-Midwest, which focuses on developing teacher-leaders; the Western Michigan University Achievement-Centered Leadership Program; and Reading Now Network, a collaborative effort involving 100 districts to boost reading proficiency to 80 percent in 13 counties, for which Parkview is a lab school.

Jobson and her staff identified how to use data to improve instruction, build teacher-leaders and zero in on reading instruction practices. Teacher-leaders were given leadership roles in RNN work, using what they learned in training through Education Trust-Midwest.

Because all initiatives have dovetailed, the staff has move in a unified direction, Jobson said: “We have been able to set up systems as a result of these partnerships that we feel can be used not only for reading, but other content areas as well.

“We know that we need to keep growing and reflecting on our instruction and the systems supporting our instruction,” she added, “because we want our data to look good compared to all schools, but it’s encouraging to be doing so well among our peers.”

Another encouraging finding of the study: In 2016-2017, Wyoming Intermediate, a secondary school in the Wyoming district, was ranked in the top 20th percentile among high-poverty schools for fifth-grade low-income student performance in English language arts.

Stocking Elementary Principal Joann Riemersma, left, says developing teacher-leaders has helped improve instruction building-wide

Building-wide Strategies

At Stocking Elementary, a low-income school on Grand Rapids’ West Side, the principal and teachers are supported weekly by Cheryl Corpus, associate director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Corpus also works with Parkview and Sibley schools to support improved instruction and develop teacher-leaders, who coach other teachers.

Riemersma, the principal, said Corpus has been key in helping her use data to track student performance and in providing teachers with ideas and feedback on their instruction. Five lead teachers oversee building-wide teaching strategies and go into other teachers’ classrooms to see them put into action.

For instance, all teachers regularly hold “number talks” in which students are taught to solve math problems in multiple ways. The process is paying off with higher fifth-grade test scores, especially among Latino students, she said.

“It extends our kids’ thinking and their ability to solve problems flexibly and efficiently,” Riemersma said. “I think they are making sense of math maybe in a way they haven’t before.”

As students and teachers got ready for a new round of M-STEP tests right after Spring Break, Riemersma sensed pride among students who felt “the passion that comes from being able to do something and do it well.”

”We’re geared up,” she said of the upcoming tests. “We’re ready to see some good results. Our kids are working really hard.”


The Education Trust-Midwest

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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