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Opinion | Let’s not flunk third-graders for low reading scores in a pandemic

Tests have value, and the data they produce has value, too. I’m not against either one, but like everything else in this world, they have their time and place. This much is clear: the middle of a deadly, global pandemic is simply not the time to use testing data to flunk thousands of young, struggling readers.

This is why I introduced Senate Bill 199, which would eliminate the grade retention piece of Michigan’s 3rd Grade Reading Law for the 2020-2021 school year.

Dayna Polehanki
Dayna Polehanki is a former teacher and current Democratic state senator representing the 7th District, which includes Livonia. (Courtesy photo)

The grade retention piece of the law, which will be implemented for the first time this spring, mandates that children in third grade must be retained if they do not meet grade-level expectations on a modified version of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), with some exemptions.

This test-and-punish approach to improving literacy was misguided before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now it’s just plain cruel. Even before the pandemic, experts who studied retention practices noted a psychological impact on kids. In one study, elementary-aged students had to rate 20 stressful life events. The students listed being retained in school among the top three, along with losing a parent and going blind.

In addition to the psychological impact grade retention has on kids, it is not an effective tool to improve their reading. One study of a similar read-or-flunk law in Florida shows that short-term gains for retained students disappear over time. Additionally, John Hattie, Ph.D., an award-winning researcher, listed grade retention as having a negative effect size related to student achievement.

Moreover, vulnerable populations that have been hardest hit by COVID-19 may be retained at greater rates than the general population. A 2019 study by the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) at Michigan State University on estimated retention rates in Michigan showed that rates may be higher for African American and special education students, and an early study of the Florida program revealed that nearly 70 percent of retained students were recipients of free and reduced-price lunches.

The bottom line is that Michigan’s kids must not be made to carry the burden of being legally flunked by the state due to circumstances beyond their control. To do so would be unconscionable after all the uncertainty and mental stress they have endured this past year.

Let’s keep the beneficial parts of the third grade reading law: progress monitoring of students on their reading abilities, using early literacy coaches and reading intervention programs, providing K-3 teachers with professional development opportunities on reading, and notifying parents of early literacy delays and providing them with “Read at Home” plans.

But let’s do away with the test-and-punish piece of Michigan’s reading law and give families and education professionals the ability to tailor a path that is right for each student.

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