Michigan schools revolt: We won’t flunk struggling third-grade readers
Some Michigan school districts are revolting against the state’s third-grade read-or-flunk law, saying they will do everything in their power to prevent students from repeating third grade because of low reading test scores.
Interviews with officials at districts across the state, some of whom spoke on the record and some who spoke for background, revealed plans to use exemptions in the law across-the-board to avoid retaining third-graders flagged for retention.
The districts’ opposition is an astonishing public rebuke of a law passed by the Legislature and signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016. The current 2019-20 school year is the first in which third-graders can be retained if they are more than a year behind in reading ability based on state test results this spring.
Their resistance comes as the current governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, made clear this week she is simpatico with their planned resistance to the law, even launching a drive with several high-profile foundations to arm parents with strategies to help their children avoid repeating third grade.
The Michigan Department of Education estimated 5,000 students (roughly 5 percent of third-graders) will be flagged for retention because of low reading scores on this spring’s M-STEP test. That would represent a sevenfold increase over the number of students retained in third grade in 2018-19.
But as the testing period for M-STEP approaches, conversations with school leaders suggest there may be far fewer students retained than projected. And some districts are not waiting for test results to proclaim that they will not flunk students for low scores.
“This was all the buzz at a state superintendent’s meeting last week,” said David Mustonen, communications director at Dearborn Public Schools, which plans to aggressively use exemptions to advance struggling readers to fourth grade in the fall. “What our superintendent (Glen Maleyko) heard is that most superintendents are doing the same thing.”
Other districts revolting against the law include the state’s largest school district, Detroit Public Schools Community District.
“No third-grader needs to be retained if a parent or teacher does not believe retention is the best strategy for the child’s development under the new law. Period,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “No different than how you dealt with retention in the past.”
In Detroit’s public schools, 160 third-graders (4 percent) flunked third grade in 2018-19. Based on test scores, the state projects the number of students flagged for retention in Detroit would jump to more than 800 (20 percent of city third-graders).
In an emailed statement to Bridge, Vitti said he expects the district to use exemptions in the law to shrink that number substantially.
Exemptions built into the 2016 law include: special education students; students who are English language learners; those who have been in the same school for less than two years, and those already retained in a grade.
Most significantly, another exemption allows principals to make the final call on retention, whether or not a parent makes a request, essentially giving districts carte blanche to ignore the flunk part of the read-or-flunk law.
“We are actively planning to use exemptions and especially the exemption that a parent and or a teacher have to agree with the retention recommendation,” wrote Vitti, the Detroit chief. “The third grade read[ing] law places too much emphasis on the state reading test. This is punitive and contradicts what we know as best practice and what we know is best for children.
“We should never use a standardized test to punish students.” Vitti said.
The debate matters because education experts view improving third-grade reading skills as a key to improving Michigan’s schools, which rank in the bottom half in the nation for academic achievement. Michigan ranks 34th in the percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Former Gov. Snyder and current Gov. Whitmer both advocated for increasing the percent of adults with post-high school credentials as a means of boosting Michigan’s economy.
In October 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed the law, which requires students who are more than a grade level behind in reading by the end of third grade to be retained, joining 15 states with similar laws.
Education leaders immediately raised concerns about the retention portion of the law, pointing out that low-income students are more likely to be retained because test scores often correlate to income, and that studies are at best mixed on the long-term benefit of retention.
Flunking 5,000 third-graders would Michigan cost taxpayers about $40 million because of the extra year in the k-12 system, an amount some educators argue could be better spent on early literacy efforts.
The sponsor of the bill, now-former Rep. Amanda Price, a Republican from Ottawa County who chaired the House Education Committee, said she hoped the bill would help low-income children, who often have lower reading scores than their more affluent classmates.
Price told Bridge on Thursday she was “very disappointed” by the schools’ planned end-run around the law.
“I don’t understand why there’s so much discussion about the retention part of the law,” Price said. “Why isn’t there more push to get these kids to read rather than fighting this line in the sand?”
The 2016 law also included funding for early literacy efforts, such as reading intervention specialists to work with struggling children to boost reading levels.
“The intent of the law was, starting in kindergarten, preparing children to read, so that when they reach third grade they wouldn’t need to be retained,” Price said. “Maybe I’m naïve to believe it only takes four years to teach a kid to read, but I think the normal parent thinks by end of third grade their kiddos should be reading.”
Despite at least $110 million spent on early literacy in the past three years, the percent of Michigan third-graders who were deemed “not proficient” in English Language Arts has actually risen.
Dearborn, which has a large, first-generation immigrant population, sent letters to parents of the district’s 1,500 third-graders last week, telling them how they can appeal a retention notification and making clear the district disagrees with the read-or-flunk law.
An estimated 30 Dearborn students (2 percent) were projected to be flagged for repeating third grade. The district will help families fill out forms to apply for exemptions, said Mustonen, the communications director.
“Dearborn Public Schools does not believe retention is an effective way to help students master a subject or to help them succeed at school,” Maleyko wrote in the letter.
A similar declaration came from an affluent suburban district in Oakland County.
The Novi Community School District does not plan to retain any third-graders because of the law, said R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent for academic affairs.
“Our approach will be to provide parents with every opportunity to utilize the exemptions in the law for third-grade reading to avoid retention,” Webber said. “The belief we have is that retention is not an effective method to improve learner outcomes and experiences.”
The response is the same at small, low-income Godfrey-Lee Public Schools near Grand Rapids.
“Our plan is not to retain students,” Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Kevin Polston said.
“We will work with each family of students eligible for retention to discuss their unique situation and what we can do in partnership to grow the learning of the student.”
Kyle Mayer, assistant superintendent at Holland-based Ottawa Intermediate School District, said districts in the western Michigan county are “going to look for every opportunity available to apply the good cause exemptions.”
Mayer predicted after exemptions are used by districts across the state, there will be “significantly less” students retained in third grade than the 5,000 projected by MDE.
When reached for comment Thursday, the state education department declined to criticize or support school districts choosing to circumvent the read-or-flunk law.
State Superintendent Michael Rice opposes the retention portion of the law, saying in his interview for the state’s top education post in 2019 that the law was based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.”
In an email response to Bridge Thursday, MDE noted that children flagged for retention but advanced to fourth grade are supposed to receive the same reading support as if they were retained.
“The Read By Grade Three law provides a number of possible exemptions to retention and gives local district superintendents the ultimate decision on whether students are retained in third grade or advanced to fourth grade,” said MDE spokesperson Bill DiSessa.
“These locally-determined decisions are to be made with input from the parents or guardians and the school building-level educators,” DiSessa said. “We expect that these local decisions will be made by determining what is in the best interest of each student, by local educators who know those students best.”
Beth DeShone, of the school choice advocacy group Great Lakes Education Project, criticized schools that planned to ignore the law.
“I find it shameful that these adults would look to find ways to circumvent” the law, DeShone said. Students who are struggling readers in third grade typically continue to struggle in school and have higher dropout rates, she noted, adding that flunking children in third grade is better than passing kids along who can’t read.
“If they ignore the law, I’d say they’re breaking the law,” DeShone said.
Schools aren’t so much breaking the law as they are using the loopholes built into the policy when it was created in 2016, counters Randy Davis, superintendent of Marshall Public Schools near Battle Creek.
Projecting from last year’s scores, there are probably eight third-graders in Marshall this year who will fall below the cutoff score and be flagged for retention, Davis said.
“I feel as a superintendent that the interventions are adequate to move them forward,” Davis said.
“But just because we’re not retaining any more than normal doesn’t mean the law hasn’t had an impact. The big angst people had about the law created a focus on literacy. That was necessary to move the needle for districts.”
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