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Michigan’s 3rd-grade read-or-flunk law may expand to 4th grade next year

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A Republican bill expected to be introduced Wednesday could mean both third-graders and fourth-graders could face retention for low reading scores. (Bridge file photo)

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

Michigan’s controversial third grade read-or-flunk law could also apply to fourth-graders in the 2021-22 school year under a substitute bill expected to be introduced Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee. 

The anticipated proposal was met with a hail of criticism, with one school official predicting the possibility of a “flunk-a-thon” in schools next spring. 

Under the state’s existing 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.

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That law is to be implemented for the first time this month, using the results of the M-STEP, which was taken by tens of thousands of third-graders in April and May. Letters must be delivered to parents of children who scored poorly on the reading test by June 1.

A copy of the new, expanded proposal, to be introduced Wednesday, was obtained by Bridge Michigan Tuesday. Under the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newago, the state would hold off retaining third-graders this year because of concerns over learning loss associated with the challenges of education during the pandemic.

Instead, this year’s third-graders would face possible retention at the end of their fourth-grade year, in the spring of 2022, under the new bill. And next school year’s third-graders would also face possible retention if their reading scores fall below a cut line.

After next year, in the 2022-23 school year, the law would revert to application only to third-graders.

Bumstead, the sponsor of the substitute bill, and Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chair of the Senate Education Committee in the Republican-controlled chamber, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

David Randels, director of government relations, education policy and research for Oakland Schools, the intermediate school district that provides services for public school districts in Oakland County, predicted to Bridge Michigan a statewide “flunk-a-thon” if the bill became law.

On Twitter, Randels called the proposal a “rushed and ham-handed plan” that appears to give students a break for the pandemic school year, but in effect, says, “We’ll just test and punish them next year. See? All fixed. Let’s be clear: a vote for this is a vote to flunk kids.”

Researchers and educators agree that a child’s reading level in third grade is a key indicator of future academic success. Among students who are reading behind grade-level by the end of third grade, 74 percent never catch up with classmates, and graduate high school at lower rates.

Education experts view improving third-grade reading as a way to turn around Michigan schools. In October 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed a law requiring students who are more than a grade level behind in reading by the end of third grade to be retained, joining 15 other states with similar read-or-flunk laws.

There are exceptions in the law for students in special education and English language learners, and schools and parents have broad leeway in whether to accept the recommendation that a student be retained in grade.

The law was supposed to take effect in 2020, but was put on hold during the early days of the pandemic.

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, told Bridge Michigan he was conflicted about the bill that was to be introduced Wednesday.

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

Students were not required to take the M-STEP test this year, and most students who were learning remotely didn’t take it, because it would have required them to take the test in school. That meant the law would be implemented unevenly this year, Runestad said, with some students who took the test being recommended for retention, while others who may have benefited from being held back allowed to pass to fourth grade because they didn’t take the M-STEP.

That unevenness, Runestad, said, could be an argument for applying the third-grade reading law to fourth graders next year, to make sure all students who are behind in reading are found, retained and given extra help.

On the other hand, Runestad said, he’s not sure schools have the capacity to offer the type of additional services for struggling readers in fourth grade next year that are now available to students in kindergarten through third grade.

Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance for Michigan school advocacy organization, blasted the proposal.

“We knew it would be a tough year for students because of the pandemic,” McCann said. “The solution to that problem is not to punish more students next year.

“Why not just agree that no one should be punished for what they’ve been through this year?”

State Superintendent Michael Rice also spoke out against the proposal.

“Doubling down on bad policy is not the answer,” Rice told Bridge in an email Tuesday evening. “Instead, the Legislature should fund early childhood education for all eligible children in the state, lower early elementary class sizes, one-on-one tutors for children in need, and diverse classroom reading materials for early elementary students.

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