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More Michigan third-graders could be held back under read-or-flunk law

For more young readers may be subject to retention in third grade this year because far more students took the state assessment test this year than last year. (Shutterstock photo)

Parents of nearly 5,700 Michigan students are getting unwelcome news: Their third-graders could be held back from moving to the fourth grade because of low reading scores.

The number of struggling young readers is up 60 percent from total last year as being eligible to be retained, though that increase comes with a significant caveat: Far more third graders took the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) this year. 

The Michigan Department of Education said 98 percent of students took the third-grade English language arts M-STEP  this year, up from 71 percent a year ago. Scores on the reading portion of that test determine eligibility for retention under the state’s controversial “read by grade three” law.

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But that only partially explains the increase. Scores declined, too. 

This year, 5.8 percent of those who took the test this spring scored at least one grade level behind in reading skills, making them eligible for retention. That’s up from 4.8 percent last year.

It is unclear how many of those students will actually be held back under the law, which provides wide latitude for parents to request (and schools to grant) exemptions. Administrators granted them liberally last year, holding back just 0.3 percent of all third-graders.

Administrators might not be as lenient in the most recently completed school year, which featured far fewer school closures, quarantines and other pandemic-related disruptions.

“Last year, there was a general acceptance of the fact that kids didn’t have an opportunity to learn to the extent they would normally,” said Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University. “It’s unclear to me how districts will respond now that there’s been more of a return to normalcy.”  

State Superintendent Michael Rice said in a statement that a single test score should not determine whether a student repeats third grade.

“Retention decisions should be on a student-by-student basis, in consultation among parents, teachers, and administrators,” he said. “In general, however, the idea that a given score on a state assessment should generate retention makes no sense. Student performance in multiple ways should be considered before a decision to retain a student.”

The state Center for Educational Progress and Information began mailing letters to parents on May 18.

The K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a public school advocacy group which opposed the law from the outset, hopes few students are retained.

“Holding a child back can be extraordinarily harmful to their academic success,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the alliance. Individualized instruction, tutoring and reading coaching are better solutions, and schools are already offering them, he said.

Rice agreed, adding that smaller class sizes, strong teacher training, and summer school are also more helpful than retention, as are well-trained school librarians, specialized help for students with dyslexia, and a longer school year.  

Across all grade levels tested, 96 percent of students took state assessments this year, up from 70 percent last year. The MDE is expected to release results of those tests in early fall.

“It’s great to see higher participation rates this year — one more indication that higher percentages of parents, students, and staff are comfortable in schools,” Rice said. 

Fewer students took standardized tests last year because they are required to be given in person, and many students were learning remotely during the pandemic last year.

Rice said it’s “a positive sign to see more children in school on a regular basis, where they are able to interact with one another and their teachers to help them grow, learn and thrive in a wide range of ways.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org. 

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