A study by a group of researchers at Michigan State University has found that if the new state reading law expected to take effect next year were in place today, it could lead to almost 5,000 Michigan students repeating the third grade.
Under the Read by Grade Three law passed in 2016 and signed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, schools, with a few exceptions, would be required to hold back all Michigan public school students who failed to meet a certain reading proficiency level. According to MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), that could include up to 5% of all third graders across the state.
In a report published in June by EPIC, the group said, “Depending on how many students receive Good Cause Exemptions, estimates suggest that between 2% and 5% of 3rd graders may be retained as a result of Read by Grade 3.”
Those numbers are especially high for populations that have traditionally not been served as well by the public school system, with EPIC reporting that “Between 7% and 11% of African Americans may be retained” and “up to 10% of Special Education students may be retained.”
Bill DiSessa, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), said the state is doing all it can to prevent students from being held back, but that it will comply with the will of the Legislature.
“We support these findings because we have the same data,” DiSessa said. “That said, the law itself is the law, and so just like any other law that involves MDE we’re going to carry it out.”
DiSessa said that the department is working to make sure intermediate school districts (ISDs) have access to literacy coaches to work with students who are identified as being in danger of retention, and pointed out that MDE has provided parents with a wealth of resources to better understand the law and prepare for its implementation.
He also stressed that the findings described the effect of the law if it were implemented today, and not for the upcoming school year, as is currently planned.
In a survey released in March by the advocacy coalition Launch Michigan, however, educators voiced an overwhelming concern that the department’s efforts to date and over the course of the next year won’t be enough to deal with the effects of the law.
The survey found that only 22% are confident their school can give “substantial” support to students in danger of retention, and 24% believe their school can’t offer any support.
Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, said his union has “always opposed the part of the law that calls for retention of third-graders, and this report is further proof retention is not an effective strategy to improve literacy rates for Michigan students.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office has voiced its support for scrapping the original GOP-sponsored law altogether, although that’s unlikely with the Legislature still under Republican control.
“Retention has negative impacts on kids,” Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown told the Advance in April. “We need meaningful early intervention, as supported with the governor’s budget, for example, to triple the number of literacy coaches to make sure teachers have the support they need to meet kids’ needs. The goal is to support kids to make sure they are successful, and not just penalize them.”
MDE’s DiSessa described the rationale for the law as focusing on a moment in a child’s education that’s proven to be crucial to their future success.
“Children tend to learn to read by grade three, and then they read to learn, so research has backed up repeatedly over the years that this turns out to be a critical juncture in a child’s development,” DiSessa said.
“A child who is not proficient by grade three tends to have academic and developmental problems thereafter. … You want to try to avoid that situation by having all children reading proficiently by third grade.”
Ottawa County Treasurer Amanda Price, a GOP former state representative who sponsored the original Read by Grade Three legislation, said that to her if the legislation pushes educators to improve their standards, it will have done its job.
“A colleague of mine was talking about [the legislation] and she said there’s been a general consensus that maybe the retention piece should stay in, because it’s driving improvement in the system, and that was the goal of this legislation,” Price said.
“The goal of this legislation … was to get children reading better not just by the end of third grade, but through kindergarten, first and second grades, and I’m encouraged if the ‘teeth’ in the bill are having some measure of success.”
Price also lauded the work of the General Education Leadership Network, a coalition working to prepare school districts for the new law’s implementation, and acknowledged the new law requires a heavy lift “training, retraining teachers, getting parents engaged in this.”
The Read by Grade Three law will go into effect for the upcoming 2019-20 school year, meaning third graders who do not meet the proficiency threshold on the M-STEP standardized test given in spring 2020 could be held back for the 2020-21 school year.