Truth Squad | Bill Schuette says Michigan is ‘last’ in third-grade reading

Attorney General Bill Schuette claimed Michigan third-graders are “lowest in the land” in reading.

May 2019: Will Michigan 3rd- grade reading law hurt poor? Florida’s history says yes
August 2018 update: Bill Schuette wins Republican nod for Michigan governor

Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general and the frontrunner in the Republican primary for governor, has a line he offers in stump speeches and, last week, on a debate stage at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Michigan, he says, is last in the nation in third-grade reading.

Is that true?

There’s no doubt education is a big issue for candidates running for governor, and for good reason. Standardized tests show Michigan students are learning less than students in most other states. The average fourth-grader in Michigan is reading at a grade level 1.5 grades lower than the average Massachusetts fourth-grader, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as one example. And Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states nationally in most subjects and grades tested by NAEP.

The impact goes far beyond the classroom. States with a higher percentage of adults with a college education generally have higher median incomes. Higher incomes mean more taxes, which mean more money for roads, public safety and other state expenditures.

In January, Michigan didn’t make the cut as a finalist for a second Amazon headquarters that promised as many as 50,000 new jobs, with one reason widely thought to be a lack of an educated workforce.

In recent years, a dozen reports have been written about the need to improve Michigan schools. One common theme in those reports is the need to improve early reading skills.

So it’s no surprise that gubernatorial candidates including Schuette have made school improvement, and early reading in particular, a key talking point.

Unfortunately, Schuette’s claim that Michigan third-graders are the worst readers in the United States is based on a misinterpretation of one line in the introduction to one report, with no data to back it up.

The claim

“Our third-grade reading scores are the lowest in land.”

That’s what Schuette said in his closing statement at the gubernatorial candidate forum Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Earlier in the forum, which included the top three Republican and top three Democratic candidates, Schuette said, “When you look at our third-grade reading scores that are the lowest in America, when only 35 percent of our third graders are proficient in reading, they’ve been failed.”

In total, Schuette mentioned third-grade reading four times in the one-hour forum.  Beyond the examples above, the attorney general also said “our third-grade reading scores are (at) the bottom of the heap,” during a question about taxes, and “we need third-grade reading scores that are going up, instead of being at the bottom” in a question about revenue sharing.

Schuette spokesman John Sellek points to a study released in January by Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit Michigan advocacy group, as the source for the candidate’s claim. In an introductory letter to that report, Executive Director Amber Arellano, writes, “a new analysis by The Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan’s third-graders are the lowest performing students in the U.S. among peers based on the state’s assessment.”

The facts

That ETM analysis, though, is based on scores from just 11 states, not 50, as the 48-page report makes clear after the introductory section. Among 11 states that give third-graders a test similar to Michigan’s M-STEP, Michigan third-graders were last in the amount they improved their reading scores, and tied for last in raw reading scores.

The statement cited by Schuette’s campaign can easily be construed to suggest Michigan is last in the nation, rather than last among 11 states tested.

There is no common test given to third-graders in all 50 states that allow for  comparisons in reading skills. As a result, there’s no definitive way to know where Michigan ranks in third-grade reading in the nation. We could be “the bottom,” as Schuette said. Or, we could conceivably be as high as 12th (if the other 38 states chose to give its third-graders an M-STEP-like test).

There are, though, state-to-state comparisons for fourth graders. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” Michigan’s fourth-graders ranked 35th in the nation in 2017, up from 41st in 2015.

When asked by Truth Squad about the line in her letter claiming Michigan students were the “lowest performing in the U.S.,” Arellano answered:

“Michigan is last for improvement and performance in third-grade reading among nearly a dozen states that use a comparable test to Michigan’s M-STEP. But regardless of the measure, we all can agree that with more than half of Michigan students reading below grade level by the third grade, we must do much, much more to support Michigan’s young learners.

“This issue undermines the future prosperity of Michigan students, families and communities, and should be taken seriously by anyone running for public office.”

Schuette spokesperson Sellek said the candidate will continue to “focus like a laser on improving third-grade reading scores that by all measures are seriously lacking, and by some rankings the worst, as the Ed Trust report said.”

It’s good that Schuette, along with other gubernatorial candidates, is taking the need for school improvement seriously. But for that effort to succeed, it’s important for candidates to know, and relay to the public, accurate information about the state of our schools.

Schuette has repeatedly said Michigan is last in the nation in third-grade reading. And while it’s understandable how he could have gleaned that from one line in an introduction section to one report, that claim does not appear to be knowable, as even that same report should have made clear.

Bill Schuette
Michigan third-graders worst in nation in reading
The Call
Half Accurate

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Dr. Richard Zeile
Thu, 06/07/2018 - 9:46am

I observed last September ( that these claims were exaggerated. Nevertheless, they have been repeated by many, including Bridge magazine (Mar 15, 2018 - "We found that Michigan actually showed the greatest decline for third-grade reading," ...). Heroditus, the Greek historian, justified all kinds of rumors and stories in his account of the Persian war observing that history includes not just what actually happened, but also what people think happened.

Megan Fenkell
Thu, 06/07/2018 - 11:24am

While I am not one to ever side with Bill Schuette, what is most important here is that Michigan is not number one. And our state government is doing very little to support educators so that they can improve our children's reading scores. I would love to see a candidate discuss concrete ways that we are going to improve reading abilities in our state, and no, holding them back in third grade is not the simple answer.

bill soule
Sun, 06/10/2018 - 11:24am

It's simple . Read, Write, Arithmetic. Read aloud in class . Do math on the BB. Write small essays every day about -- about 100 words or so. Get rid of teacher's desks, bring back recess and PE. Read aloud in class about current things -- sports, school events. local events -- I know !! Back to the future!!

Blair Esme
Thu, 06/07/2018 - 11:25am

This warranted a truth squad story, really? Seems pretty silly. The lines are nearly identical... "third grade reading scores that are lowest in America" and "Michigan's third graders are the lowest performing students in the U.S." If this is really such a big deal, will the Education Trust Midwest group revise their own report to be more accurate?

Chuck Fellows
Thu, 06/07/2018 - 12:39pm

There is no evidence to support the assertion that children must be able to read at "grade level" (whatever that happens to be this year). Once again the bureaucrats fearful of losing their control over education in Michigan are making up stories to secure their jobs instead of supporting learning at the classroom level. These statements about third grade reading reflect our gross ignorance, our collective inability to think.
As to the candidate, he may be able to read but his comprehension scores are lower than most. Just listen to what he has to say.

Matt Korolden
Thu, 06/07/2018 - 10:05pm

The scores are a direct result of MI GOP education policy decisions made by legislators purchased by Betsy DeVos.

He’s hoping you don’t know this.

Now you do.

Damning evidence of failed Ed policy by the MI GOP. MI is the only state to demonstrate a decline in proficiency.  

" Most States Improve:
Achievement improved in nearly every state between 2003 and 2015. The District of Columbia made the largest strides, with a combined NAEP proficiency rate increasing by 15 points. Substantial gains in Arizona, Hawaii, and Tennessee were the only other instances of double-digit progress. The majority of states saw gains of 5 to 9 points. By contrast, rates in Michigan declined by a point."

Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost.

A Review of Charter Schools in MI

Michigan spends $1B on charter schools but fails to hold them accountable

How DeVos bought the MIGOP

Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down.

Catherine Walker
Sun, 06/10/2018 - 10:43pm

Here's one you forgot, Mr. Korolden!
Oops! I know it runs counter to your tidy little narrative that charter schools have wrecked Michigan, but facts are facts. And if, indeed, Betsy DeVos is responsible for this, I'm expecting that your thank-you card is on its way to Washington, D.C., right now!

Jeffrey L Salisbury
Fri, 06/08/2018 - 2:20pm

"NAEP 'proficient' is not synonymous with 'grade level.'
NAEP officials urge that 'proficient' not be interpreted as reflecting 'grade level' work. It is a standard set much higher
(7th grade) than that."
The NAEP Proficiency Myth
Brookings Institute Blog/-2016/06/13/

John Calvin
Sun, 06/10/2018 - 10:51pm

I hope you've learned a lesson here, Bridge. You LOVE to quote your beloved Amber Arellano and Ed Trust-Midwest, but you need to realize that Ed Trust-Midwest only exists if Michigan's K-12 education system sucks. They have to ignore all positive signs, skew the data so that it looks more alarming that it really is, and then come to the rescue with their brilliant "solutions" for all these "problems." In exchange, their funders give them money and Bridge magazine bows at their feet, quoting them as "experts" at every turn.
It would seem in this Truth Squad story that Amber and ETM have been exposed for what they are. They skew the data to make it say that they want it to say, so that Michigan's K-12 education will continue to suck in the eyes of the world. The wizard has been exposed. We now see that ETM is now what they said they are.
And if Bridge ever again quotes Amber Arellano (someone who has no background in this) as an expert on anything to do with education, you (Bridge) will have been exposed as a hypocrite of the highest order.
You slap Schuette's hand for the way he handled this. You should be slapping ETM's hand, and you should be slapping your own hand, as well. Shame on all of you.

Dick Olson
Wed, 10/03/2018 - 12:30am

The Republicans have been in total control of state government for the last 8 years. Time to kick them all out and give the Democrats their chance. Interestingly the Ds have never had total control of Michigan state government except for the first few months of the Blanchard administration. This is a total Republican fail and connected to their total focus on reducing taxes for corporations.