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Six times more third-graders may flunk next year under Michigan reading law

More than 5,000 third-graders – five percent across the state - may be held back from advancing to fourth grade following the 2019-20 school year because of Michigan’s “read or flunk” law, which takes effect this fall.

That’s a more than six-fold increase over the number of third-graders who were held back in 2017-18 (777 students), but a far smaller number than had been feared would flunk as a result of the law, which requires third-graders to be reading at a second-grade level or higher by the end of third grade.

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

The Michigan Department of Education informed public schools Thursday of the score on the third grade state assessment test, the M-STEP, that would trigger the possibility of a student being held back. That cut score, according to the letter, would have corresponded to 5 percent of third-graders being subject to being held back in 2017-18, if the law had been in effect that school year.

Another 17.5 percent of those students would have had scores low enough to qualify for additional support but advance to fourth grade; 77.5 percent would meet the reading requirement.

You can read the MDE letter here.

The percentage of third-graders who will be subject to being held back because of low test scores will vary widely among school districts.

The impoverished school districts in Detroit and Flint, for example, would likely to have at least triple the state average of third-graders qualifying to be retained, according to estimates made after the cut score was released by Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based education advocacy organization. According to Ed Trust, at least 16 percent of Detroit and Flint third-graders in 2017-18 would have been held back under the impending law.

Exact calculations on the percent of students likely to qualify for being held back in individual districts can’t be done with publicly available data.

Because the M-STEP test that third-graders will take in 2019-20 is very similar to the test taken in recent years, the percentage of students subject to flunking third grade should be similar to the simulation using 2017-18 scores.

While one in 20 third-graders are likely to have test scores that would make them eligible for having to repeat third grade, the actual number who flunk could be less.

That’s because underperforming students can still advance to fourth grade through a number of exemptions spelled out in the law. There are, for instance, exemptions for English language learners, for children who already have been retained in a grade, and for children who have special education designations. Parents can also appeal a retention decision to schools, with school officials making the final determination.

Michigan Department of Education officials were not immediately available for comment late Friday.

Brian Gutman, communications director for Education Trust-Midwest,  “puts accountability squarely on 9-year-olds rather than the (education) system.”

Having thousands of children stigmatized by flunking a grade sends the wrong message, Gutman said, especially “after four years and $120 million invested (by the state in early reading programs), and we’re seeing scores go down.”

Related: Michigan spent $80 million to improve early reading. Scores went down

The law, passed the Michigan Legislature in October 2016, requires that students more than a grade level behind in reading skills be retained in third grade. The policy doesn’t kick in until this fall – a three-year delay intended to give schools time to improve early reading skills and allow the state Department of Education to create grade-level assessments from the state M-STEP test.

Republicans have strongly backed the law, saying it helps ensure that students have mastered basic reading skills at a critical time in their early academic lives. Critics say that the trauma of repeating third grade outweighs the potential benefit of taking a second run through third-grade reading. A soon-to-be published study of a similar law in Florida found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tended to be held back at higher rates than more affluent students, even when they had the same low reading scores.  

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

Just how many kids are estimated to flunk under the new Michigan law wasn’t known until now because the M-STEP test had not been set up to reveal how scores reflected a student’s grade level. MDE officials spent 10 months developing a cut score that would be the equivalent of second-grade reading proficiency.

Three in 10 third-graders – 31,700 - were rated “not proficient in English Language Arts in 2017-18. The 5 percent flagged for possible retention represent just one in six students of the 30 percent who were deemed “not proficient” that year.

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