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Opinion | Don’t gut the third-grade reading law; give it a chance to work

Mike Jandernoa

The third-grade reading law is finally being implemented after a three-year phase-in.  It would be unjust to these students and their classmates to delay full implementation further. Some in Lansing are proposing actions that would repeal a key part of the law and do just that.

The 2016 reading law requires districts to identify students who cannot read proficiently by the third grade and provide them with the extra support and resources needed to move to the next grade level – or hold them another year for further help. Why is it so important to have these requirements to ensure kids are reading at the third-grade level? 

First, because multiple studies have shown that a student’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is crucial for future learning. By fourth grade they need to be “reading to learn” — a skill that impacts the rest of their life. If a student can’t read proficiently in third grade, how can he or she be expected to keep up in each grade after? Moving these students forward without teaching them to read is a cruel punishment that only assures future failure. 

Studies show that students who aren’t proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not graduate from high school. African-American and Hispanic students not reading in third grade are six times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Reading is essential far beyond the school years.  Studies have shown that 7 out of 10 inmates in the U.S. cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

Second, Michigan’s reading scores are abysmally low. The recent news of the state’s education ranking increase is nothing to celebrate — we stayed flat, other states simply got worse. Sadly, details in the NAEP report show that 69 percent of our children are behind in reading scores.

Legislators rightly worked hard to look at ways to start reversing this trend.  In 2016, with input by many in the education community, the “Read by Grade Three” law passed and supports both teachers and kids with resources to reach children as early as kindergarten.  Schools can use assessments to identify students who struggle to read and then deliver a broad variety of resources including literacy coaches, reading improvement and intervention programs, and more to help these students catch up —  before they even get to third grade.   Unfortunately, some have said that this support wasn’t happening at these levels before this law.

After all these efforts are made, if a third-grade student is still unable to read at the minimum of a second-grade level, that student is  retained for further help -– unless exempted for other causes included in the law. These kids are then given more specialized support and time to catch up. Michigan has invested over $80 million toward these reading-specific efforts.

Holding children back so they can achieve future success is not “punitive;” it is proactive. We want our kids to succeed and teachers would agree. Ask a teacher how well it works when trying to teach a room full of third-graders where 7 out of 10 of her kids are reading at the first-grade level or below.   The answer isn’t to pass kids who can’t read onto the fourth-grade teacher -– it’s to help the kids right now, with extra support.  Even if it takes an extra year. 

A Manhattan Institute study that looked at programs in other states show that retained students are able to catch up, while students who are promoted without the instruction they need, fall further behind. 

Students who received this extra year and instruction outperformed their peers who barely passed for promotion in both reading and math, and they have a higher probability of graduating with a regular diploma. Michigan should expect nothing less. 

While it may be hard for adults to hold back those students who aren’t second-grade reading level by the time they finish third grade, the legislature should NOT change course and condemn our kids to future failure.  Kids need help, not excuses.

Give the current law, in its full implementation, a chance to work. Our kids deserve it.

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