Which Educational Achievement Test is Best for Michigan?

A Comparison of the MEAP, SAT-9, and ITBS

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 educational standards.

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 achievement.

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, respectively).

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 assessment.

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 assessment.

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 year.

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 cannot.

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 www.mackinac.org.