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

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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