There’s a battle being waged among adults in Lansing about children in third grade, a battle over how many of those children should stay in third grade.
The GOP controls both state chambers, but Republicans in the House of Representatives want more third graders to be barred from advancing to fourth grade if they aren’t reading at grade level; Republicans in the Senate want fewer to flunk.
Until that disagreement is sorted out, mandates for increased reading coaches and early intervention for struggling readers will be held up.
House Bill 4822 is an effort to improve third-grade reading skills. It includes mandates for additional reading help for struggling students in early grades, and requires students who are still reading below grade level at the end of third grade to be held back until they reach reading proficiency. The debate is over how many ways a non-proficient student can still advance to fourth grade.
The bill is now in conference, which means a handful of representatives and senators will try to hash out the differences between the versions passed by the two chambers.
Studies show third-grade reading skills are a key barometer of future success.
That’s not a good sign for Michigan, which is 40th in the nation in third-grade reading proficiency rates.
Former State Superintendent Mike Flanagan told Bridge in 2013 that how well children read in third grade predicts their success in the rest of their school career. Students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate on time, which typically means smaller paychecks throughout their lifetimes.
Sixteen states have laws that recommend retaining kids in third grade if they are not reading at grade level.
But other research shows that retaining kids in a grade, while well meaning, carries unintended consequences, including increasing their chances of dropping out of school.
(Read Bridge Magazine’s report on Michigan’s “redshirt kindergartners”)
Retaining students also comes with a cost for taxpayers: Students who are retained in third grade will be in school for an extra year, at a current cost of about $7,400 per student.
“I agree with intervention, but mandatory retention is idiotic,” said Ferndale Schools Superintendent Blake Prewitt. “It’s the one thing that everyone in education agrees on – retention doesn’t work. You’re just repeating the same stuff they weren’t successful with the first time.”
Michigan’s third-grade reading legislation effort first surfaced in 2013, with a more punitive “read or flunk” bill, sponsored by Rep. Amanda Price, R- Holland, that could have held back as many as 39,000 third-graders, with no money set aside for early literacy intervention.
That bill didn’t pass. This session’s version is patterned off recommendations made by a third-grade reading workgroup put together by Gov. Rick Snyder. That report emphasized the importance of identifying struggling readers early and one-on-one instruction to help them catch up.
This session’s House version, also sponsored by Price, requires schools to offer a full-court press of services for students who are struggling with reading, beginning as early as the fall of their kindergarten year. The efforts, which range from reading coaches to individualized reading plans, are aimed at boosting the reading abilities of struggling students to help them reach grade-level proficiency by the end of third grade.
The policy would take effect in the 2019-20 school year. Students who are third graders in 2019-20 (who are in kindergarten this year) who are reading at least one grade level below third grade when they finish that school year can be held back.
Where the House and Senate disagree is how many loopholes should exist for third-graders to advance to fourth grade even if they are a year or more behind. The Senate version includes more exemptions, including allowing parents to tell schools they want their children to advance to fourth grade despite their reading scores.
“Some changes were made (in the Senate) that we felt really relaxed (retention),” House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, told Gongwer News Service. “And in some cases maybe relaxed it too much.”
Bill sponsor Price did not return a call to her office for comment.
While not the focus of the bill, the possibility of retention is needed for accountability, said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a school choice and charter advocacy group that was an early advocate for the measure.
“Our desire is that kids get to grade level without being retained,” Naeyaert said. “But it’s our opinion that if retention is an uncomfortable consequence, then it’s a motivation for children, parents and schools to get serious about the interventions that are necessary. If there are no consequences, we haven’t changed anything.”
That’s not the view of Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who voted against the House version in October and the Senate version when it was returned to the House in March.
The Senate’s added exemptions “attempts to poke holes in a terrible idea, but it’s still a terrible idea (to retain students because of reading scores),” Irwin said.
The exemption allowing parents to override the third-grade retention policy “allows parents who are involved to have an opportunity to exempt their child. But there will be children who won’t have those resources at home,” creating a system that could mean more low-income urban children are likely to flunk third grade than their similarly struggling suburban peers.
Nobody really knows how many kids would repeat third grade as a result of the bill. The tests to determine reading proficiency haven’t been set, early literacy intervention efforts are just getting started, and nobody knows how many students will qualify for and use exemptions. Naeyaert estimated 3,000 students would be retained – just 3 percent of third-graders, but triple the number now being retained.
About $100 million is being funneled to Michigan schools to beef up early literacy this school year through two different funds, with a similar amount set for 2016-17. Education experts say early intervention, rather than retention, is likely to make the biggest impact on the education of Michigan’s children. House Bill 4822 mandates ways that money should be spent. But those mandates are tied up until the Legislature can agree on retention exemptions.
“We have to have a laser focus on this and not … continue to have high school graduates who can’t read,” Naeyaert said.