Poll: parents don’t know Michigan's 3rd-grade reading law, love A-to-F school grades

SLIDESHOW: What do Michigan parents think about education? A new poll offers some answers

A majority of Michigan parents don’t know about a soon-to-be-implemented law that could cause thousands of third-graders to flunk because of poor reading test scores, according to a new statewide poll.

Among the poll’s other key findings: Parents overwhelmingly support Michigan’s new A-to-F school accountability system, and also support giving more money to schools serving low-income students, though Republicans are divided on that issue.

Related: Will Michigan 3rd- grade reading law hurt poor? Florida’s history says yes
Related: Which Michigan 3rd-graders will flunk reading? The state has no idea.

The third-grade reading law, which takes effect this fall, has a potentially far-reaching impact on third-graders beginning in the 2019-20 school year. Yet 67 percent of parents polled said they knew little to nothing about it; only 16 percent reported they were very familiar with the policy.

That so many parents are unaware of the law and its implications raises concerns because the policy presumes parental involvement in helping struggling readers.

“It is really concerning that in the spring prior to this school year...not many parents know about this law,” said Brian Gutman, director for external relations at Education Trust-Midwest, which conducted the poll. “For parents with elementary-aged kids, they need to be equipped with ways that they can help their student.”

The poll, released last week, examines parents’ views on the state of Michigan schools. Among 600 Michigan parents surveyed, the poll found improving the quality of education is parents’ highest priority, ranking above fixing the roads, the economy and healthcare as the most pressing issue facing the state. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Michigan’s third-grade reading retention law is set to be implemented in the 2019-20 school year. The law requires any third-grader reading below second-grade level (as measured by scores on the state education test known as the M-STEP) to be retained in the third grade. The law includes exemptions for struggling readers who are English-language learners, who’ve been held back in grade already and whose regular school work indicates reading proficiency. Parents can also request an exemption.

Under the law, schools are to provide parents of struggling readers interim reports during the school year in hopes of recruiting parents in efforts to help their students. But concerns have been raised about the law’s effectiveness and whether it could have negative impacts on students’ social and educational trajectory.

Related: Michigan is investing heavily in early reading. So far, it’s not working.

The Michigan Department of Education finalized its assessment tools used to determine which students should be held back last week, with the department projecting that about 5,000 third-graders will be retained in third grade - six times the current retention rate.

Despite the massive implications for families, the Education Trust-Midwest poll found that 54 percent of Michigan parents had no familiarity with the third-grade reading law; 13 percent were “a little familiar”; 17 percent were “somewhat familiar”; and 16 percent were “very familiar.”

Experts broadly agree on the importance of students mastering basic reading skills by third grade. But they disagree on the merits of holding back struggling students versus, for instance, increasing support for struggling readers.

Last week, Bridge reported on a study from Florida which has a similar law, which found that low-income and minority students there were more likely to be held back than more affluent and white students, even when they had the same low scores.  

Incoming State Superintendent Michael Rice, recently appointed by a Democratic-majority state school board, calls it “a bad law” based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.

Related: Will Michigan 3rd- grade reading law hurt poor? Florida’s history says yes

“We have to improve reading in Michigan,” Rice said in his interview for the state’s chief school post. “But retention is not good for children.” 

But Beth DeShone, advocacy director for the conservative Great Lakes Education Project, said it’s time for Michigan to draw a line in the sand on reading skills. “Studies prove students must learn to read by third grade so they can read to learn for the rest of their career,” DeShone said in a March 2019 statement. “We cannot return to social promotion (promoting students to the next grade despite poor performance) so that career politicians can coddle those who prioritize adult feelings over student needs.”

On another controversial issue, 84 percent of Michigan parents agree that Michigan public schools should be held accountable through an A-to-F grading system. This belief was maintained over all races, political parties, and income brackets.

That overwhelming support among parents stands in contrast to criticism of the policy from Michigan education leaders.

The Michigan legislature adopted the A-to-F accountability system in 2018. Proponents of the system argue that it is a “clear and essential next step” for improving accountability and quality in our state’s public schools. Critics contend that it follows an unfair, inequitable algorithm that punishes schools based on factors that may be out of their control, like poverty.

Education Trust’s Gutman said the poll’s results say less about the specifics of Michigan’s A-to-F policy, and more about parents’ desire for “clear and honest accountability.

“We do want to be clear that this is about the idea of the A-to-F letter grade system for transparency,” Gutman said. “Parents at a gut level recognize the A-to-F letter grade system and can appreciate it.”

The A through F system assesses schools based on five components, assigning them a letter grade for each metric. They are:

  1. Proficiency in math and English language arts
  2. Growth in math and English language arts
  3. Growth in proficiency among English as a second language students
  4. Graduation rates
  5. Academic performance compared to similar schools.

What parents also agree on, Gutman said, is that “schools need more resources to serve students who have a greater need.” Nearly two-thirds of Michigan parents support more funding for school districts with high rates of low-income and minority students.

The poll found more support for differentiated funding ‒ giving more resources to vulnerable students ‒ among Democrats (84 percent) and Independents (59 percent) than Republicans (49 percent), and among the poor (83 percent) than the wealthy (58 percent).

Michigan parents do agree though on other topics:

  • 94 percent of parents said it is important to have effective teachers and high-quality instruction so to improve the quality of education.
  • Three-quarters of parents support using data on student learning should be a factor in evaluating teacher performance.

“The polarization that we hear around Lansing is simply not there for Michigan parents,” Gutman said. “The vast majority of parents agree with each other,” Gutman said. “To me, this really signals that politics need to be taken out of public education.”

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Mon, 05/20/2019 - 8:42am

Expect nearly every parent to protest their kid being held back, many will take it as a personal afront and say "my kid is not stupid" etc. many will probably be allowed to go to the next grade just to get the parent off the schools back about it.

Mon, 05/20/2019 - 10:46am

There is no research to support the use of retention as an effective tool to help kids learn to read. In fact, most research on retention indicates that retention predicts much worse outcomes in the future. For more information, look to the National Association of School Psychologists position papers on retention.

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 1:17pm

They have been given 3 years to prepare for this. If by 3rd Grade a child can't read, there is some kind of problem and the schools and parents really need to focus on what the problem is. Merely holding them back will not solve dyslexia, poor eyesight, poor teaching methods, poor student attitude, or poor parental involvement. Maybe poor student attitude could be addressed this way but it seems just as likely to make it worse. As is common with government actions, it provides a one size fits all solution rather than looking for individual circumstances and selecting from an appropriate range of solutions. This should really start even earlier. There is no doubt that students learn at different rates and with different motivations. We should not slow down the fast learning motivated students and we should not expect all to learn at their rate. Some students could be ready for college courses much earlier although they may not be socially mature. We need a wide range of education levels to make a useful society...the ones developing novel chemistry for advanced solar panels need different skills than those installing them and those figuring out how to integrate them into the grid. All are important even if they may have different working conditions and pay levels. Children need to understand that the education we are cramming down their throats at an early age is essential for them to grow into a useful contributing member of society. It can be hard to instill motivation when society seems to celebrate social success (Kardashians?), athletic success (pro-athletes), and political success (AOC?), much more than technical success (who is designing the next gen solar panels and batteries or curing Alzheimers?) or even self-sufficiency (the quiet family down the street that through hard work, managed to raise successful kids, save for their own retirement, pay taxes, and stay out of jail). We, through our support of the media, help create role models that may not be in the best interest of our children.

Mon, 05/27/2019 - 12:09pm

The studies have shown that it is not the schools and not even the children but, the parents. It has been studied in the US and repeated in Europe. Children whose parents share read (having the child follow along even though they cannot read) have higher vocabulary and reading comprehension by the 4th grade. Share reading allows the child to ask questions about words and recognize letters at an earlier age.

As for students whose parents do not do this early intervention could be a big help. Children who go to day care, pre school, or head start and have low comprehension can be (most likely) identified by poor language skills. Share reading could be done with them instead of the usual "story book" time. A short book which someone share reads with them.