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

Amanda Price

Amanda Price is a former state legislator and a member of the governor’s PreK-12 Literacy Commission. Today, she serves as the treasurer for Ottawa County.

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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I call BS
Thu, 12/12/2019 - 5:57pm

You assist children more, but don't hold them back. You offer other approaches. 9 out of 10 children with dyslexia are never diagnosed. You can't teach them to read with phonics. You have to invest in testing for dyslexia and using other teaching methods. Otherwise when you flunk struggling children because you failed to teach them, you are just a cruel jerk!

Rob Fowler
Fri, 12/13/2019 - 9:19am

The problem is that passing a struggling child who we failed to teach is a cruelty too.

Mon, 12/16/2019 - 7:00am

The research on retention as was practiced in Florida says that holding back elementary students, especially primary grade (K-3) students, leads to improved high school completion rates and to higher grades in middle and high school vs. the students whose parents overrode the recommendation for retention in third grade. Letting a kid with dyslexia continue to struggle while getting ever more behind their classmates is much more cruel than getting them up to speed with more intensive focus on reading during their elementary years.

Also, you're dead wrong according to the research. What works best for students with dyslexia is a structured, multi-sensory, systematic, phonics-based reading curriculum. Unfortunately, relatively few Michigan elementary teachers actually use that approach, preferring so-called Balanced Literacy instead.

Michael Scott
Fri, 12/13/2019 - 10:06am

Hogwash, plain and simple. This law is punitive at best without the necessary resources. Some of the discussion at the time referred to the success that Florida had using a similar approach. Except that Florida actually put the necessary resources (read: money) behind its effort. Our legislators, including Ms. Price, created a system but did not support it with the necessary funding, nor did they give any credence to the research on retention. I believe our local district, and most around the state, do what they can with limited resources to provide interventions for struggling readers. But until Ms. Price's replacements in the legislature get serious about providing the funding necessary for literacy coaches and other supports, our kids will continue to struggle. And here is a side note on this debacle ... Letters to parents whose children may be subject to retention are not scheduled to be mailed until after the school year ends. Good luck to parents and schools trying to plan for next year.

Until the legislature gets serious about weighted funding and providing appropriate funding for this and other mandates, kids will struggle. Educating children is a people-business and getting enough people trained and in place to teach kids is expensive. Too bad Ms. Price and others didn't think so when crafting this law.

Fri, 12/13/2019 - 11:33am

"Amanda Price is a Republican politician from Michigan who served in the Michigan House of Representatives. Prior to her election to the Legislature, Price was a township trustee and supervisor. She is a former legislative aide, and was the public affairs manager for SemcoEnergy. "

One of the many "republicans" who thinks she has the answers to all Michiganders problems. Money speaks and Ms Price certainly has a lot of it to donate to the party responsible for the significant decline in educational performance of the children in this state for the last two decades.

Her comment that the law is working is another sign of republican dominance in MI politics. The competitiveness and know it all attitude of these politicians has decimated our current standing in the world. These people are trying to solve problems they don't understand and refuse to admit they don't know what they are doing. Sorry but the King has no clothes on and these people really don't get it. None of them have backgrounds in education. They work from old ideas and are not held accountable for their actions. Thank goodness she is no longer a legislator.

Starting the investment in preschool education would be a far better use of the 80 million used for this program. Get out of your ivory tower and look at the reality of the situation.

Mon, 12/16/2019 - 7:19am

You must be unaware that Michigan dramatically increased spending on the Great Start School Readiness program 4 years ago, when the Read by Third Grade law was first proposed. Funding went from $175 million to $239 million between 2014 and 2015, immediately after the Read by Third Grade law was passed and state funded pre-school places in addition to Head Start went from 48,000 to 63,000 per school year. This program is operated by and through intermediate school districts, who are quite familiar with education.

mary therese lemanek
Sat, 12/14/2019 - 11:57am

There are many things which impact a child's ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade...more than a few which have nothing to do with what happens within the school building. Honestly addressing the socio-economic factors is not simple or quick but in the absence of dealing with broader issues, retention is not going to help most struggling readers.