How much is it worth to help third graders become better readers?
How well children read in third grade often predicts how well they’ll do in the rest of their school career, says State Superintendent Mike Flanagan. Students who are good readers by third grade dropout less, and are more likely to go to college. That means better jobs and higher pay over a lifetime.
But what if the cost of that better reading skill is an extra year in third grade? What if tens of thousands of Michigan children were held back a year because they scored poorly on a standardized reading test?
Are better-reading third-graders worth the $50 million annually that is the low end of estimates for students spending an extra year in school? Are they worth the half-billion dollars it will cost the state a year that is the high end?
Those are the questions being asked by Michigan legislators, who are considering bills aimed at increasing efforts to help kids falling behind in reading, and flunking those who still aren’t cutting the mustard.
“There is a moral imperative that we prepare our students better, and third-grade reading is by far the single criteria that measures success in K-12 education,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. Read Naeyaert’s guest column in Bridge, “Making early literacy a priority in Michigan” “If a third of our students are not proficient (in reading in third grade) and are simply moving on, it’s a tragedy.”
The two-bill package, House Bill 5111 and House Bill 5144, is similar to legislation in other states, combines intervention efforts to identify and work with struggling students as early as kindergarten, with a third-grade line in the sand: Score at “proficient” level or above in reading on a standardized test, or expect to stay in third grade.
No state funding would be provided to implement the program beyond money for a short-term pilot program.
“Up to third grade, kids learn to read, and after that, they’re reading to learn,” said Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, the sponsor of the read-or-flunk bill. “It’s the foundational learning ability that runs through all of academic experience.”
Last year, 35 percent of Michigan third-graders would have been held back under Price’s bill – that’s more than 39,000 Michigan students repeating third grade instead of the less than 1,000 who were held back.
Exemptions would be made under the bills for students with learning disabilities and for whom English is a second language. Students would have the chance to retake the test, and could advance to fourth grade through alternate tests or by convincing administrators of their competence through other course work they have performed.
“I don’t see this as punitive,” Price said. “The point isn’t to retain students, it’s to improve literacy. It creates a laser focus on improving reading skills.”
‘A terrible strategy’
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have instituted some form of read-or-flunk policy for third graders. “More and more of our governors are turning to this,” said Susan Neuman, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan and an expert on early literacy. “They like the get-tough policy. But it’s a terrible strategy. It’s blaming children when you should be blaming the system.”
Neuman agrees that third grade can be a turning point for students, but said that retaining kids can do more harm than good. Making children repeat third grade because of struggles with reading is treating the symptom rather than the cause, and is “an expensive intervention that leads to middle school malaise and high school dropout.”
Those held-back students who do graduate will be in school an extra year, which is, at minimum, an extra $7,000 per student cost to the state.
Even with intensive literacy prep in early grades and exemptions some non-proficient students would receive, Naeyaert estimates that at least 8,000 third-graders would be held back – an eight-fold increase with a long-term cost to the state of about $50 million.
The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group, argues that a beefed-up reading assessment planned for next year will mean that even fewer Michigan third graders are likely to pass the reading test. According to Ed Trust-Midwest, next year’s test will be similar to the National Assessment of Education Progress test (or NAEP), which only 31 percent of state third graders passed last year. If that happens, a staggering 80,000 students could be held back, for a long-term cost of more than $500 million.
A middle figure assumes last year’s rate of reading proficiency on the MEAP. At that rate, an additional 38,000 students would have been held back, for a long-term cost of $266 million.
Big returns from more education
If holding back third-graders who are having trouble reading does help them graduate high school and go to college, there could be a substantial return on investment for Michigan. College graduates earn about three times as much as high school dropouts.
Whether such laws work or not isn’t known yet. Florida has had a read-or-flunk policy since 2003, and a Harvard study found that children who were held back in third grade were less likely to be held back in subsequent grades, but that an initial increase in academic achievement faded after five years.
Florida also has invested in intensive intervention for struggling students, said Michigan State University early literacy expert Tanya Wright. “What’s critical for struggling readers is to get intensive intervention on what they’re struggling with,” Wright said.
Early reading intervention is part of the plan here, too, though, currently in the bills no money has been set aside to pay for this extra instruction.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Thomas Stallworth, D-Detroit, would require the Michigan Department of Education to develop early literacy programs to help low-performing students catch up to their peers before the end of third grade. Parents of struggling readers would be given “tools to … engage in intervention at home,” according to the bill, while schools would engage in intensive intervention.
The third-grade retention and the early literacy intervention bills are tie-barred, meaning they both must pass to take effect.
“My bill sets the line in the sand,” Price said, “and Rep. Stallworth’s bill lays out how we make sure children don’t reach that line.”
The Michigan State Board of Education opposed the third-grade retention plan in November. “While we all agree that reading comprehension is of vital importance, (Price’s bill) focuses on mandatory student retention without specifying the need for school practices that reduce failure rates,” the board wrote in a statement opposing the effort.
“The entire board and the public are for kids reading at proficiency levels at third grade,” said Dan Varner, state school board secretary and CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit. “The issue is, if we’re going to make that a high bar, then we’ve got to provide the resources and support to schools and early learning and development programs, so the number of third graders impacted by that high bar is low, and those who are retained get the kind of intervention and support necessary.”
Varner suggests the state would need to raise the amount it spends per student in high-poverty schools to $14,000 a year in early grades “to have a realistic chance” for these students to succeed – a figure that is higher than the amount spent per student in most schools today.
Naeyaert counters that it’s unacceptable to put that high of a price tag on something schools should be doing already. “We spend $4 billion on K-3 education now,” Naeyaert said. “Reading literacy is the most important priority for K-3 education. One might argue that for $4 billion, expecting third-graders to read (shouldn’t be) an additional responsibility.”
To supporters of the read-or-flunk policy, the threat of third-grade retention illustrates that Michigan is serious about education, and carries a big enough stick to spark changes in state schools.
To critics, the lack of funding for programs to help struggling readers shows Michigan isn’t as serious as it needs to be.
“What legislators won’t admit is it takes more resources, more time, better instruction, and all those things lead to a different pedagogy for children at risk,” U-M’s Neuman said.
Price said she believes the bills have a good chance of passing the House, possibly in the next several weeks. “The chances are looking really good,” Price said.
As currently written, the read-or-flunk policy wouldn’t go into effect until the 2016-17 school year, meaning the first class to be affected is in kindergarten now.
“It’s important for families to understand how important it is,” Price said. “They don’t understand the dividing point of third grade. If you aren’t reading well then, you go in two different trajectories.”
How to change those trajectories, though, is complicated. Third-grade retention alone won’t fix Michigan’s education woes, admits Naeyaert. Varner similarly admits that money alone won’t improve learning, either. “We’ve got to get out of a political discussion where one thing is a magic bullet, and build a coherent system,” Varner said.