Alarm bells are sounding — again — for the Detroit Public Schools Community District after its students lost ground on a high-profile national exam and scored below their peers in every other large city.
The anemic results underscore the urgency of academic recovery for Detroit students. While the district has used federal COVID relief dollars to invest heavily in tutoring programs and summer school expansion, those funds will run out within two years.
The test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, was given to a representative sample of students across the country between January and March. During that period, DPSCD closed school buildings for over a month due to high COVID and low vaccination rates in the city.
Scores were released at the national and state levels, and for 26 urban districts that opted to participate in a special analysis. The Detroit district’s average fourth grade math score, which had ticked up in the last round of testing, dropped to the lowest point since scores were first released for Detroit in 2009. The decline of 12 points — on a 500-point scale — was among the largest of any large city.
On every metric, the Detroit district’s average scores fell below every other big city district. Experts note that Detroit faces higher rates of child poverty and absenteeism — factors linked to low test scores — than most of the comparison cities. And a large number of DPSCD students opted to learn remotely for long stretches of the pandemic, which research suggests contributed to learning loss.
The results come against a backdrop of falling test scores across the U.S. and Michigan. Compared with the last round of tests in 2019, Michigan’s NAEP scores fell in every grade and subject, with a particularly sharp drop in fourth grade reading, and the state remains below the falling national average.
This was the first NAEP test conducted since before the pandemic shut down classrooms in March 2020.
The national results outraged education leaders — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called them “appalling and unacceptable” — though evidence of pandemic-driven learning loss has been piling up for months.
“They lost a lot of hands on math in that year,” said Carrie Russell, a math teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Detroit. “We’re trying to figure out how to rectify that, but there are no easy answers.”
Russell, who has helped administer standardized exams other than NAEP, added that students seem to be having more difficulty maintaining their focus through a multi-hour test.
“The decline in NAEP scores should not surprise anyone considering the disruption to teaching and learning that was caused by the pandemic from student attendance to the challenges of online learning,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement. “We also know that the pandemic impacted communities such as Detroit’s more than others, which only exacerbated learning loss.”
Among districts that participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment, which uses the NAEP to study district-level performance in large urban areas, Detroit’s score declines were not the worst. Collectively, most schools that took the urban assessment performed significantly worse than they did before the pandemic.
Vitti said that many suggested the district not participate in NAEP testing.
“We disagreed and did so to know where we stand and the ground that needs to be made up,” Vitti said. “DPSCD now has the systems and processes in place to improve student achievement and rebound from the pandemic. I am confident that improvement will be demonstrated in two years when our students NAEP test again.”
Results add to pressure on district leaders
The results for Michigan’s largest school district illustrate the pandemic’s overwhelming impact on student learning and mental health, as well as the urgency of Vitti’s ongoing efforts to turn around the district under local control, following years of emergency management.
The revelation more than a decade ago that Detroit ranked last among large cities on NAEP set off a furor in the city. The district changed its literacy curriculum. The Detroit Free Press partnered with the district to launch a literacy tutoring initiative that attracted thousands of volunteers.
Today, the district has been facing increased criticism from people attending school board meetings who say not enough is being done to help students improve. They have called on the district to do more to address literacy levels and declining graduation rates. Vitti argues regularly that student performance will improve as long as students show up to school regularly.
On Thursday, Vitti was named this year’s top urban educator by the Council of Great City Schools, a recognition of his efforts to overhaul the district’s curriculum and reduce teacher vacancies.
Like districts across the country, Detroit saw its absenteeism rate rise sharply last year, partly because of quarantining rules that required many students to stay home if they were exposed to COVID-19.
Nearly 80% of district students were identified as chronically absent — meaning they missed 10% or more of their school days — an extremely high number even by the standards of a district that typically has one of the highest absenteeism rates in the country.
Marcia Spivey, a parent at Edmonson Montessori Elementary School, believes school-level intervention such as tutoring should be at the top of the district’s goals to turn around student testing performance.
“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” Spivey said. “Find out what the teachers need, what the family needs.”
Spivey said she hasn’t seen that type of intervention at her children’s school, but she’s been encouraged by how her children’s teachers have responded to their performance on local i-Ready assessments. She added that her daughter’s teacher offered to implement a two-week intervention and help Spivey support her daughter’s learning at home.
COVID disrupted district reforms
In the past, Detroit students have had the worst performance not only among large, urban districts but also compared with all states in fourth- and eighth-grade math, as well as fourth-grade reading. In 2019, Detroit shared the bottom spot with Cleveland for eighth-grade reading.
The release of results from Michigan’s standardized test, M-STEP, in September spotlighted the district’s challenges: Detroit district students performed slightly below pre-pandemic measures, with students in almost all grade levels performing worse in math and reading.
Like other big city school districts, Detroit had to grapple with community COVID infection rates of 30%-40% at the beginning of 2022, just as students were set to return from winter break. The citywide outbreak prompted the school district to pivot to remote learning for most of January.
Vitti has said that the pandemic interrupted some of the district’s reform efforts: increasing staff support, reducing teacher vacancies, increasing teacher pay, and expanding academic and enrichment opportunities for students. Using federal COVID relief dollars, the district has resumed and expanded some of those efforts, including the addition of intensive literacy tutoring.
With deadlines for those funds looming, however, advocates are warning that districts — and state lawmakers — must find the funding necessary to continue their recovery efforts.
“We aren’t surprised that students are struggling given what they’ve been through,” said Molly Sweeney, director of organizing for 482Forward, a Detroit-based education advocacy group. “This reaffirms that school districts need to focus on where they’re spending and what that means for student mental health and learning. And it says that we need to focus on fully and equitably funding schools.”
What is NAEP?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced nape) is a test administered by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s given periodically to a representative subset of American students in math and reading in grades four and eight. Scores are broken down by state and for a select handful of cities, too, including Detroit.
The latest results are based on tests given to more than 400,000 students between January and March 2022. The previous test was given in 2019, before the pandemic.
Unlike state exams or tests students might take for a regular class, NAEP is low stakes for individual students, teachers, and schools. In other words, results aren’t used to, say, evaluate teachers or grade students.
Scores from a separate NAEP exam that has been given to 9-year-olds for many decades were previously released in September.
How should I interpret the results?
Results are based on a sample of students, so there is a margin of error — or uncertainty — in the scores. This is particularly important for interpreting the state and city scores, which have higher margins of error than the country as a whole. This margin of error also determines whether a score change is statistically “significant.” A change is considered significant when the increase or decrease exceeds the margin of error — that is, when researchers are confident that the change is different than zero.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at email@example.com.
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.