The past generation of students in Michigan has taken the Michigan
Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test to gauge their academic competency in
five basic subject areas: mathematics, reading, science, social studies and
writing. The MEAP test is not the only option for the Michigan Legislature to
consider. A number of commercial firms publish high-quality, low-cost
educational achievement tests that could potentially replace the MEAP. The
following compares the MEAP to two commercial achievement tests: the Stanford
Achievement Test, Ninth Edition (SAT-9) and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS),
and analyzes the benefits and costs of each test.
The Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP)
Some 25 years ago, the Michigan Revised School Code and the later-passed
State School Aid Act of 1979 directed that school standards and accountability
testing be used to gauge the academic achievement of all Michigan students.
Since then, the MEAP has been adjusted periodically to conform to the state’s
As noted above, the MEAP exams are given to students in five basic subjects
for students in grades 4-11, as follows:
• Reading (grades 4, 7, and 11)
• Mathematics (grades 4, 7, and 11)
• Social Studies (grades 5, 8, and 11)
• Science (grades 8 and 11)
• Writing (grade 11)
An advantage of the MEAP is that it is aligned with state standards and uses
performance levels to grade the outcome. For example, in the 11th grade (high
school) test the MEAP uses four levels to determine proficiency: Exceeded
Michigan Standards (Level 1), Met Michigan Standards (Level 2), Basic (Level 3),
and Unendorsed (Level 4). These performance levels give parents and
policy-makers more understanding about what the test scores mean.
The Michigan standards themselves, however, have been roundly criticized for
being unduly vague and broad. Well-structured education standards should be
focused on year-by-year learning, and be rigorous, intelligible and measurable,
so that teachers and parents alike know what is expected each year. The Michigan
Department of Education should consider reviewing California’s standards as the
model of quality for math and reading.
Another issue is the cost of the MEAP exams. According to a report from noted
Harvard economist Caroline M. Hoxby, the costs per pupil are lower in Michigan
than in other states; however, this is partially because of the infrequency of
the exams. Also, students don’t begin MEAP testing until the fourth grade, so
there is no objective way of ascertaining how well a child, school, or school
district is performing, compared to his or her peers in other parts of the
state, until that grade.
Further, there is no way to gauge year-to-year changes in subject
performance. If a particular student is doing well in fourth grade reading,
there is no objective measure of reading mastery again for that student until
the seventh grade. If that student’s reading achievement had begun to slip in
the fifth grade, for example, this objective measurement of achievement would
not be able to help his or her teachers zero in on the nature of the deficiency.
Under new federal standards (see below), and under legislation pending in the
Michigan House, some of these shortcomings will be remedied—and the cost will
rise—as more grades are tested.
Alternatives: The Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition and the Iowa
Test of Basic Skills
Two of the more popular alternatives to the MEAP are the Stanford Achievement
Test, Ninth Edition (SAT-9), published by Harcourt Educational Measurement, and
the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), published by Riverside Publishing/Houghton
Mifflin. Both companies offer tests in a number of subject areas including
reading, mathematics, language, science and social studies, among others, and
these are packaged into a comprehensive battery of tests.
These are both norm-referenced tests; that is, the score results are
standardized so they can be easily compared. Both tests report scores as
percentile ranks. For example, a student who scores at the 50th percentile has a
higher level of achievement than 50 percent of his or her peers nationwide. One
advantage of this system over a state-based test like the MEAP is that it allows
the state as a whole to compare itself to the nation in terms of academic
School officials may also ask for “performance standard scoring” already used
by the MEAP. The SAT-9 offers four levels of performance (Level 1 through Level
4), which look analogous to the Michigan performance levels (below satisfactory,
partial mastery, solid performance, and superior performance for Levels 1-4,
The questions used in both of these tests are drafted using nationally
recognized curriculum standards as their guide. For example, questions for the
SAT-9 reading test are written using criteria from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress; science test questions are drafted according to National
Science Education Standards drawn by the National Research Council (a division
of the National Academy of Sciences), etc.
A number of states use one of these tests as their state benchmark test. For
example, at least part of the SAT-9 is used by Arkansas, Arizona, California,
Delaware, the District of Columbia, Utah and West Virginia as their state
There are at least five major advantages for Michigan in using a commercial
test such as the ITBS or SAT-9.
1. Flexibility: The comprehensive battery of tests comes with a range of
tests that may be chosen by the state. For example, the ITBS’ complete battery
of tests includes reading, language arts, mathematics, social studies and
science, among others. School administrators and policy-makers may pick and
choose which assessments will be given.
2. Comparability: Percentile ranking scores can show how well the entire
state is performing in these subjects compared to the nation as a whole. The
MEAP lacks any kind of national comparability.
3. Political Neutrality: Michigan and many other states experience
considerable political turbulence over K-12 curriculum standards, test content
and methodology. The number of interest groups to satisfy is immense, the debate
heated and emotional, and the stakes significant, especially when the
availability of school funding and student scholarships are contingent upon the
results. Adopting a widely respected commercial test can avoid many political
battles, and may even increase public confidence in the state’s performance
4. Value: By one calculation, it costs up to $22 per student to administer
and score the MEAP exam. If a set of reusable SAT-9 or ITBS test booklets is
purchased for the population of Michigan public school children in grades 4-8
(almost 640,000 students), there would be a one-time cost of approximately $2.8
million ($4.40 for each test booklet for the SAT-9—the ITBS has a similar cost
structure). Machine-readable answer sheets would add another half million
dollars each year (about $0.81 per sheet). Scoring the tests each year would add
between $1.95 and $5.90 per student (between $1.25 and $3.78 million per year),
depending on which reports the state desires.
In all, the program would cost at most $7.1 million for the first year and
not quite $4.5 million in subsequent years (in 2001 the state spent about $16.4
million on testing), assuming the state doesn’t negotiate any kind of scale
discount from the publisher. This equates to slightly more than $11 per tested
student in the first year and $7 thereafter. A study of Georgia’s testing system
showed similar savings if that state used a private test. These estimates are in
line with other states that use a commercial test. For example, West Virginia,
which uses the SAT-9, spends about $12 per student on its testing program each
5. Compliance with federal law: The “No Child Left Behind” bill, signed into
law last January by President Bush, mandates that all states show yearly
progress in improving academic achievement. The percentile rankings of the SAT-9
or ITBS could probably be used by states to show such progress, whereas the MEAP
There are two disadvantages the Michigan Legislature will have to weigh in
choosing a commercial test as opposed to the MEAP.
1. Standards: The state of Michigan would lose the ability to match its own
academic standards to the test used. This may not be a significant disadvantage,
given the merit of the earlier criticism of Michigan’s standards.
2. Long-term Use: The state would, essentially, be “starting over” in its
educational assessment program. If the MEAP, which has been used for decades
now, is replaced, little if any of the information gathered from these decades
of testing could be used to help guide educational decision makers. There would
be no way MEAP test scores could be accurately compared to SAT-9 or ITBS test
scores because they are different tests with at least slightly different
standards and objectives.
Ultimately, in the debate over testing student achievement, the Michigan
Legislature will have to decide whether it is willing to lose some control in
order to get more value and flexibility out of its academic testing program.
Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D. is director of education policy at the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland,
Michigan. For more information, visit