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Opinion | Read by Grade 3 law doesn’t hurt kids – it’s offering a lifeline

Amanda Price

It would be hard for anyone not to be moved by Ron French’s recent story in Bridge Magazine on the effort being made by a young girl named Sabrina to learn to read.   According to French’s report, Sabrina, a third-grade student in the Pontiac public school system, has lost three talented teachers in the middle of the school year – each of her teachers in kindergarten, first and second grade – leaving her education unexpectedly floundering in the hands of long-term substitutes, sometimes for months at a time.

Uncertainty in the front of the classroom has dealt Sabrina an incredibly challenging hand, but with the help of her loving and dedicated mom and an obviously talented and caring third-grade teacher, Sabrina is fighting to make progress.  

Bridge Magazine does students and teachers a disservice, however, with the article’s tone and approach toward one particular piece of recent state policy that’s playing an important part in meeting the needs of students like Sabrina who are working hard to read. 

Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 Law isn’t some scary new policy looming over local students – it’s an essential reform that’s already yielding real results that benefit Michigan kids.  

The law, passed in 2016, was designed to give struggling readers the help they need to read by grade level before entering fourth grade.  The law set up systems and metrics to help identify struggling readers (early in kindergarten, and early in the school year) and provides heavyweight reading supports for those students who might need them.

Schools are empowered by the law to offer targeted and individual support and resources, including literacy coaches, unique reading intervention programs, student-focused reading improvement plans, and more.  

Under the law, a child could also be retained if the student is more than one grade level behind in their reading abilities. This would equate to a child at the end of their third-grade year reading at the level of a midyear second-grader. A child reading at this level would not be equipped to do the work of a fourth-grader if they were promoted.

According to Bridge, about 5,000 students could potentially face retention at the end of 2019-2020 school year, including many who would have been retained even without the new law.

It is important to remember, though, that the law features a broad variety of “good cause exemptions” that would allow unprepared students to advance, even against the advice of their teachers. These exemptions include but are not limited to a student showing proficiency on an alternative test to the M-STEP, or showing proficiency by a student portfolio.  

Sabrina’s story is evidence that the law is working.  French’s story highlights how Sabrina’s teacher held a meeting with the student and her mother early this school year, shared with mother and daughter the results of tests designed to help identify struggling readers, and talked through opportunities for Sabrina and her family to improve the results. 

Early identification and interventions like these couldn’t be more important.  Study after study have shown how important it is that students read at grade level before entering the fourth grade.  Those who can’t are four times more likely to not graduate high school. 

Students like Sabrina deserve better.  It’s a tragedy when our schools fail to reach them, and one with potentially lifelong consequences.  It’d also be a tragedy if bureaucrats or special interests were able to scare reformers out of offering students a helping hand.

Fifty-five percent of Michigan’s third-graders are not proficient in reading. The Read by 3rd Grade Law helps to ensure no child falls through the cracks.  It is a law designed to help pick up the slack, when students need help, or when they get dealt a poor hand in the classroom year after year.  It’s designed to identify and lift up students who’ve been let down, or watched teachers leave the classroom again and again. 

If Sabrina’s story is any indication, it’s a law that’s working, too.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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