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Gov. Whitmer against expanding Michigan’s read-or-flunk law to 4th-graders

student reading
Third-graders who are struggling to read would get a free pass this year, but could face retention in fourth grade under a bill being considered in the Michigan Senate. (Bridge file photo)

June 15: Michigan schools revolt, won’t flunk struggling third-grade readers

A Republican-sponsored bill that would expand Michigan’s controversial third-grade read-or-flunk law to fourth-graders next year was approved by the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, and now will be considered by the full Senate.

Its chances of becoming law dimmed Wednesday, though, when a spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told Bridge Michigan the Democratic governor remains opposed to retaining students who are behind in reading. The third-grade reading law was passed before Whitmer was elected governor in 2018 and signed by her predecessor, Republican Rick Snyder.

“Governor Whitmer has and will continue to oppose the state law that mandates retention based on reading scores,” spokesperson Robert Leddy said Wednesday. “With COVID-19 creating unprecedented challenges, it’s unfair to students, teachers, and parents to prevent children from taking the next steps in their education.”



Under the state’s third-grade reading law, third-graders who are reading more than one year behind grade level on the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP, are recommended to be held back in grade.

Most third-graders have already taken the test this school year, and 2,699 letters have already been sent to families from the Michigan Department of Education saying their student scored low enough on the reading portion of the test to trigger a recommendation that they be retained in grade.

Schools and parents have broad leeway to disregard the state’s recommendation.

Wednesday, Senate Republicans on the education committee voted 4-2 along party lines to pause third-grade retention for this year due to the anticipated learning challenges associated with the pandemic, but extend the read-or-flunk law to include fourth-graders in spring 2022.

In the 2022-23 school year, the law would revert to apply to only third-graders.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, voted to pass the bill out of committee and on to the full Senate Wednesday. On Tuesday, Runestad had said he was conflicted by the bill, but felt that if students are behind in reading, it is important for them to be identified and retained, if that’s what it takes to help them.

“It has a big impact on students, and we don't take that lightly,” Runestad said Tuesday.

State Superintendent Michael Rice is one of several school leaders who have expressed opposition to the legislation.

“Third grade retentions are bad public policy, and even more so if expanding to students in two grades,” Rice said in a statement Wednesday. “Local school districts need to work carefully with families to focus on reading supports and minimize retentions and the resultant adverse impact to children.”

Education leaders agree that reading skills in early grades are crucial for success in high school and college. Some studies indicate that students who struggle with reading in third grade are less likely to graduate from high school or enroll in college.

While there’s broad consensus that increased academic support in early grades can improve reading achievement, there’s debate over the costs and benefits of flunking children who are poor readers.

Proponents of read-or-flunk laws argue that retaining students until their reading skills improve will help them succeed in later grades. Some studies though indicate that grade retention increases dropout rates from high school, though more recent research is mixed on the topic.

If the Republican-controlled Senate and House pass the bill, it would need to be signed by the governor to become law. Whitmer has voiced opposition to the state’s current third-grade reading law, and it appeared unlikely she would support an expansion of the law to fourth-graders.

“Instead of holding students back, we advocate for boosting third grade reading scores by increasing access to high-quality preschool, hiring and retaining excellent educators and literacy coaches, and supporting instruction through ongoing professional development,” said Leddy, Whitmer’s spokesperson.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to do just that this year by eliminating the funding gap between school districts to empower our kids to pursue their futures and ensure they have every resource and tools they need to be successful.”

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