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Opinion | ‘The beatings will continue until you learn to read’

With summer finally here after three months of remote learning for K-12 students, there has never been a better opportunity to rethink Michigan’s third-grade reading law and how students learn to read.

The state hit the pause button on its third-grade reading law in March when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all school buildings.  Still, evidence continues to mount nationwide that third-grade retention laws do nothing to improve reading deficiencies among young learners.

It’s unclear whether next school year will involve in-school learning, remote learning, or a hybrid model. Regardless what next school year looks like, Michigan’s students will be the latest to fall victim to this ineffective and punitive policy without action by policymakers.

The current approach

Third-grade retention laws have seen a heavy push across the country in recent years. In part, it is a reaction to the belief that “social promotion” is rampant.

Reading retention law proponents always point to Florida, and now Mississippi, as case studies. They never mention that of the 15 states and the District of Columbia where mandatory retention laws have been implemented, nine have below-average fourth-grade reading scores on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

South Carolina implemented its law in 2017 and its 2019 reading scores are 3 points below the national average. In fact, the score is 2 points below its score in 2015, before that state’s law took effect.

Here in Michigan, our third-grade reading law was originally set to take effect this school year. Signed into law by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the law requires third-graders be held back if they are more than a grade level behind in reading standards by the end of the school year. Implementation of the law was put on hold when Michigan canceled student testing for the rest of the school year in response to the pandemic.

There is significant pushback from Michigan parents and educators, and many policymakers say the law needs to be reconsidered. Michigan’s State School Superintendent Michael Rice has stated these laws are based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.”

True costs, solutions

Mandatory retention costs are extremely high. Educating a retained child means taxpayers pay for an extra year of education. In addition, researchers have long demonstrated the adverse social and emotional impacts on the student — even many years later in the student’s life.

Allocating the same money to interventions that work would be the more effective and humane choice for those children.

Florida implemented many additional interventions when it created its mandatory retention law. Which interventions made the difference? William Mathis, in a review of the impact of the so-called “Florida Formula on Student Achievement” interventions, noted there were other statewide Florida programs that could be the full or partial cause of improvements — namely, a major state investment in class size reduction and a statewide reading program.

Because of these, and many other simultaneous reforms, it is impossible to attribute test score improvements to any set or subset of these reforms.

The need is real

There will always be students who need additional help an overburdened elementary teacher cannot provide. The likelihood of at least partial remote learning next school year could make this an even greater challenge to help these students.

Lowering class size and providing literacy coaches to give struggling students the help they need is part of the answer. The expansion of high-quality preschool programs and after-school and summer school programs is also a key part of the equation. The ability to adopt such reforms will vary depending on health and safety decisions made at the state and local levels amid COVID-19 and beyond.

Research has also long established that students in schools with media specialists have higher reading scores. This holds true even when controlling for affluence of the school or community. In fact, there is evidence the benefits are strongest for at-risk learners. Yet years of budget cuts have caused many districts to reduce or eliminate school librarians.

Another piece of the puzzle is whether struggling readers can see. In one Mississippi district, 88 percent of students who failed reading tests were found to have vision problems. The American Optometric Association notes, “Current vision screening methods cannot be relied on to effectively identify individuals who need vision care. In some cases, vision screening may inhibit the early diagnosis of vision problems. Screenings can create a false sense of security for those individuals who ‘pass’ the screening but who actually have a vision problem.” Mandatory comprehensive eye and vision testing by a professional should be required for all struggling readers.

Teaching children to read is essential, but a mandatory retention law is not the way. There is a better path. Research has shown us what it is. We simply need to follow it.

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