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

Kid in classroom
Michigan schools have a once-in-a-lifetime influx of cash from the federal government. How can they use it to help the most students? (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Some Michigan schools are rebelling against the state’s third grade read-or-flunk law, saying they won’t retain students because of low reading scores.

The law, which requires the Michigan Department of Education to recommend retention for third-graders whose reading proficiency is deemed to be at least one grade behind, goes into effect this year. As of Monday, families of 3,477 students (about 3.4 percent of third graders in the state) had been sent retention recommendation letters.

If all those students actually were held back, it would represent a five-fold increase over the number of students who flunked third grade in 2018-19 or 2019-20.


The law, however, grants schools and parents broad leeway to request exemptions from the state recommendation. School officials who spoke to Bridge Michigan said they plan to take full advantage of those exemptions to assure no more students are held back than usual.

“I’d be surprised if any of our districts retain students,” said Ron Koehler, superintendent of Kent Intermediate School District, which provides services for the 26 school districts in Kent County.

“Every conversation I’ve heard (with district superintendents) reflects what you’ve heard elsewhere. They’ll work with parents to use exemptions because of the extraordinary circumstances of this school year.”

Same goes in districts statewide, from urban schools like Detroit to smaller ones like Coloma Community School District in Berrien County.

The district had five students who received retention recommendation letters, and all were waived after parents appealed, said district superintendent Dave Ehlers. 

“We're not a fan of holding kids back. I don't know if any school is going to support that practice,” he told Bridge Michigan.

The rebellion has the support of some high-profile officials, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who continues to be a critic of the read-or-flunk law that was signed by her Republican predecessor Rick Snyder. In early 2020, Whitmer launched an initiative with several high-profile foundations to arm parents with strategies to help their children avoid repeating third grade.

Michigan’s top school leader, State Superintendent Michael Rice, also has criticized the law, saying that retention is not an effective tool for academic growth.

Experts view third-grade reading skills as a key to improving Michigan’s schools, which rank in the middle of the pack among the states in academic achievement. 

Michigan ranks 34th in the percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Snyder and Whitmer both advocated for increasing the percent of adults with post-high school credentials as a means of boosting Michigan’s economy.

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed the law that requires students who are more than a grade level behind in reading by the end of third grade to be retained. At least 15 states have similar laws.

Education leaders immediately raised concerns. They predicted that low-income students would be more likely to be held back because test scores often correlate to income. Studies are mixed at best on the long-term benefit of retention.

Flunking an additional 3,000 third-graders also has a tangible cost: Michigan taxpayers would be on the hook for $24 million because of the extra year those students would be in the K-12 system, an amount some educators argue could be better spent on early literacy efforts.

Compounding the debate is the pandemic, which caused most Michigan students to lurch between online learning and classrooms where everyone wore face masks.

Experts say most students likely did not learn as much in the 2020-21 school year as in a normal school year, which could put more students in danger of retention.

The retention recommendations are triggered by low scores on the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP. Because of the pandemic and the various modes of learning taking place across the state, federal officials waived the mandate that 95 percent of students take the annual test.

The result was an uneven percentage of students taking the test between districts, schools and classrooms. Students who didn’t take the test can’t be retained because of a low test score, while those who chose to take the test run that risk.

Chrystal Wilson, spokesperson for Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the district will “exercise our good cause exemptions” to limit third-grade retention.

In 2018-19, about 4 percent of Detroit third-graders were retained in grade; that percentage would jump to an estimated 20 percent with reading score retention recommendations.

Wilson referred Bridge to a statement district superintendent Nikolai Vitti made last year regarding the read or flunk law, saying that Vitti’s position remained the same.

“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,” Vitti said at the time. “We should never use a standardized test to punish students.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools had 90 third grade students with reading scores at or below the cut score out of 668 who took the reading portion of the M-STEP this spring. Another 434 third-graders didn’t take the test.

With so many students not taking the test, “the reality is that the data is not valid or reliable,” said Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesperson John Helmholdt.

“The (Grand Rapids) superintendent has communicated directly with the families that she does not support automatic retention and she will honor any and all requests for students to not be retained,” Helmholdt said. 

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