The Michigan Department of Education released its latest Michigan Merit Exam results last week, and the scores offer some good news - and bad news.
Over the past five years, scores on the standardized test given to juniors each spring have inched upward. Yet minority and low-income students still lag at startling rates. And too many youths are leaving high school unprepared for college.
This year marked the third class of students who took the exam after completing Michigan's tougher merit curriculum. So even though schools have had six years to implement the new standards, it's clear imparting this knowledge to all students poses a challenge.
Much like the Michigan Educational Achievement Program test results for elementary and middle school students released earlier this year, proficiency levels dropped precipitously on this exam. But that was expected after the State Board of Education approved stronger proficiency benchmarks that more accurately reflect how well schools are preparing students for college and beyond.
When the new standards were applied to previous years' test results, students showed slow but steady gains over the past four years in most subjects.
Robert Floden, co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, says he's pleased to see scores climbing consistently.
The fact they've risen the past few years means the increase this year isn't just a blip. But the scores aren't improving as rapidly as he'd like.
And the lack of progress the state is making to close performance gaps between white students and minority students in concerning.
According to the Education Trust-Midwest, Michigan's achievement gap is among the worst in the country. And the gaps are getting wider.
Proficiency rates for black students are 35 percent lower than white students in reading, writing and social studies. Only 25 percent of Michigan students are proficient in science, but minorities fare even worse: Just 4 percent of black students and 13 percent of Latino students are proficient.
Now that all students are required to take four credits each of English and math and more science and social studies, teachers face instructing some young people who may have avoided these courses before.
Schools should invest in additional professional development and help teachers struggling to impart a more rigorous curriculum.
Students are also required to take the ACT college entrance exam as part of the Michigan Merit Exam. Those scores are gradually rising, too, but the average Michigan score is 19.6, compared with the national average of 21.
Plus, more students are ready for college in all key subjects, based on ACT targets in math, English, reading and science. But that number is still low at 17.7 percent. Students who don't meet the benchmarks are more likely to get bad grades and need remedial coursework in college, which wastes time and money.
Some lawmakers in the House and Senate are attempting to abridge the current curriculum requirements for students. That's not wise, as these test results show the new standards have merit.
But the slow growth and disparate performance among student groups highlight the need for better implementation in classrooms.