The Test: ‘Read-or-flunk’ law looms over Michigan third-graders

Tara Olar’s fingers flit across a stack of manila folders in her empty classroom at Mayville Elementary School. Her third-grade students are down the hall in the school’s computer lab taking a test that measures their reading ability ‒ their third reading test in their first month of class. Two weeks earlier, the same students had taken a different reading evaluation conducted by a district instructor who works with low-income children.

 

The folders on Olar’s desk, one for each third-grader in the small rural school in Michigan’s thumb, contain yet a third way to measure students’ reading skills. The folders are thin on this warm day in late September, holding only a few sheets of paper from a diagnostic test conducted by Olar herself, one 8-year-old at a time in the back of her colorful classroom.

By the end of third grade, these folders will bulge with scores and notes, building toward the final test of the year.

“Everything,” Olar said, “is geared toward that test.”

That test is Michigan’s end-of-school-year standardized test, the M-STEP. For the first time, it will be used to determine which Michigan third-graders should advance to fourth grade and which will be recommended to be retained in third grade because of a low reading score.

An estimated 5,000 children – about one in 20 Michigan third-graders – may be held back under what’s come to be known as the read-or-flunk law, according to projections by the Michigan Department of Education.

For 8- and 9-year-olds who struggle with reading, the pressure could be extraordinary. 

But they are not the only ones sweating. Their performance this year will also be a test for Michigan’s third-grade teachers, who must push their students above the cutoff score to move on to fourth grade. For schools, which are devoting more resources to early reading and now will find out if they worked. And for the state, which has struggled to boost the academic performance of its public schools that languish in the bottom third in the nation.

Pivotal year for third grade

Bridge is following third-grade Michigan classrooms in four communities during the first year of the “read-or-flunk” law.  Click on a star to see how that district's third-graders have fared:

Sources: Michigan Department of Education and U.S. Census

Bridge Magazine is following four third-grade classrooms to chronicle how teachers, students and their parents prepare for the test. Over the year, Bridge will publish reports from classrooms in Mayville, a small farming community east of Saginaw; Pontiac, a low-income urban district; Huron Valley, an affluent exurban district in Oakland County; and Holt, a school system south of Lansing with a mix of affluent and low-income students.

Among the almost 100 students in those four classes, there are children of highly-educated professionals and children who are homeless. Some will get reading help from teams of adults armed with data dissecting their strengths and weaknesses; others will have only their classroom teacher to lean on.

All will take the same high-stakes test in May.

Angela Okagbare

Angela Okagbare, International Technology Academy, Pontiac

Pontiac schools

District enrollment: 4,056
Third-grade reading proficiency: 12 percent
School district's demography:
Poor: 79.6 percent
White: 7.1 percent
Black: 51.8 percent
Hispanic: 34.3 percent
Asian: 3 percent
Other race: 3.7 percent

Median household income: $36,332 ($52,668 statewide)

Angela Okagbare knew she was facing an uphill battle this school year long before she arrived at her Pontiac classroom at 7 a.m. in late August. Students wouldn’t report for another six days, but the 23-year veteran teacher had been coming to her classroom at International Technology Academy magnet school most days for a month.

On this day, she was unpacking books donated by a community group. She separated the books by reading level and put them in milk crates and multicolored baskets she purchased at Menards. She spent about $100 of her own money to brighten up her third-grade classroom for her 25 students who live in one of the poorest cities in the state.

Last year, 63 percent of Pontiac third-graders were “not proficient” on the English language arts section of the M-STEP, which includes reading. To be held back, students must perform even worse than “not proficient,” but in a high-poverty, low-performing school districts like Pontiac, the retention rate is expected to be far higher than the state average of 5 percent.

It could be still worse at Okagbare’s school, in a neighborhood of small businesses and smaller homes. This year’s class had four different teachers when they were in second grade. The teacher assigned to the classroom left shortly after school started, and was followed by two long-term substitutes (who typically do not have a teaching certificate), and then by a certified teacher in the spring.  

That lack of consistency was reflected in low reading scores in second grade. Okagbare was going to have to try to catch up those kids by next May, when the M-STEP is given.

Getting students excited about reading, like this third-grader in Pontiac, is a step toward improving Michigan’s dismal early literacy record. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Why third grade matters

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. Which is why, 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. The sponsor of the bill, former Rep. Amanda Price, a Republican from Ottawa County who chaired the House Education Committee, said she hoped the bill would help low-income children, who often have lower reading scores than their affluent classmates. 

“I cry when I see these lives being wasted,” Price said in 2018. “I don’t think the average parent knows where we are with literacy.”

The policy didn’t kick in until this fall – a three-year delay intended to allow the state Department of Education to establish grade-level assessments from M-STEP scores, and give schools time to improve early reading skills.

The law also included money to boost early-grade literacy efforts.

“My hope is that kids are never held back,” Price told Bridge in 2018. “You have kindergarten, first, second and third grades to get kids to read. In my mind, we ought to be at 95 percent proficiency.”

But we aren’t.

Mayville third-grade teacher Tara Olar uses a reading assessment book in a reading lesson in her rural Michigan classroom. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

‘Playing catch-up’

Despite at least $80 million spent on early reading efforts since the law was passed in the fall of 2016, the share of struggling readers in third grade hasn’t budged. In the 2015-16 school year, before the law was passed, 29 percent of third-graders were rated “not proficient” in English language arts on the M-STEP. In 2018-19, 30 percent were “not proficient.”

MDE projects that about 5 percent of Michigan public school students will be held back because of poor reading skills. None will likely flunk in some districts with high academic achievement, while many will likely be retained in some high-poverty, low-achieving urban school districts.

In fact, black students are projected to be held back at four times the rate of white students, according to a startling Michigan State University study that examined recent reading test scores. Likewise, children from low-income families will be four times more likely to be retained than their non-poor classmates.

The vast majority of students in Pontiac where Okagbare teaches are both  poor and minority.

“You have those kids that are in [affluent] districts that have parents that value education, that have college behind them, and so they teach their children early on that you need an education to be able to get ahead in this world,” Okagbare said. In Pontiac, “it’s like we’re playing catch-up the entire time.”

Michele Hojnacki, Lakewood Elementary, Huron Valley

Huron Valley schools

District enrollment: 8,850

Third-grade reading proficiency: 77 percent

School district's demography:

Poor: 27.3 percent
White: 89.8 percent
Black: 1.3 percent
Hispanic: 4.6 percent
Asian: 1.4 percent
Other race: 3 percent

Median household income: $101,909 ($52,668 statewide)

On that same August day, 11 miles and $65,000 in median household income away from Pontiac, SUVs and minivans filled the parking lot of Lakewood Elementary for a beginning-of-year open house. In the third-grade classroom of Michele Hojnacki, 8-year-olds checked out the desks they’d sit at when school began the following week. Hojnacki hugged her future students and posed for selfies.

Students in her class have changed since Hojnacki walked into her first third-grade classroom 26 years ago. Back then, Huron Valley Schools, located in Highland and White Lake Township in western Oakland County, was filled with farm kids. Most of those farms have been replaced with subdivisions and chain restaurants. Long gone are the days when Hojnacki once had to conduct a reading intervention meeting with a parent in the pick-up line outside her elementary. Now, parents in this community with a median household income almost twice that of the state are eager to be involved in their children’s education. 

After the children and their parents left, Hojnacki looked at a printout of her future students’ reading test scores from second grade. Some were behind grade level.

“In all my years, I’ve held back one student, and even then we left it up to the parent,” Hojnacki said. “Developmentally, some children just take a little longer. And that’s OK. And maybe you’re not a great reader, but you’re really good at questioning – an engineering mind works that way. I can’t turn on different centers of the brain with a key.”

Michael Adams, Wilcox Elementary, Holt

Holt schools

District enrollment: 5,521

Third-grade reading proficiency: 54 percent

School district's demography:
Poor: 43.6 percent
White: 65.7 percent
Black: 11.2 percent
Hispanic: 14.6 percent
Asian: 3.3 percent
Other race: 5.2 percent

Median household income: $61,495 ($52,668 statewide)

School was already in session in late August at Wilcox Elementary in Holt. Third-graders in one classroom paid rapt attention as teacher Michael Adams read aloud the Roald Dahl book “The Twits,” using a variety of funny voices for the characters.

When one student’s attention strayed, Adams stopped, and he switched to a stern teacher voice.

“I will give you every bit of me,” Adams said, “but you’ve got to give me every bit of you.”

Adams rarely watches TV. He never texts and uses email only at gunpoint. What he does do is read. He and his wife often read a book at the same time so they can talk about it like others discuss the latest episode of “The Bachelor.”

Adams is in his ninth year as a teacher. His class of 24 third-graders this year is a reflection of 5,500-student Holt Public Schools, a mix of affluent suburban kids and children from families struggling financially. The district’s third-grade test scores are above the state average, with 54 percent of students proficient or better in English language arts in 2018-19, compared to 45 percent statewide. Still, one in five third-graders were “not proficient,” the lowest rating category on the test.

“I view this year as the same as I viewed every single year that I've ever taught,” Adams said. “I do my very best when I come through the door, and I do my very best to prepare. It’s not like I'm suddenly going to become a better teacher, because of this law.”

Adams admitted though that stakes are higher this year for his students because of the read-or-flunk law, and the stern teacher voice returns.

“The legislators in Lansing don't understand that there are children who simply can't meet the high demand that they have put in front of them. And I can tell you, it breaks my heart. 

“I can tell a child, ‘Why don’t you just come do your work and make that a break from the chaos at home,’ but if your life is in turmoil, how can I expect them to come in here and do the same work as a child who goes home to a four-bedroom home with a finished basement and parents who have the time to devote to reading? I could cry thinking about that.”

The first reading test of the new year for a Huron Valley third-grader shows disappointing results. The Michigan Department of Education estimates that one in 20  third-graders will be recommended to be held back in grade because of poor reading scores on a year-end test. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

‘The tests never end’

A month into the first school year in which Michigan third-graders could be held back because of poor reading skills, Huron Valley School’s Hojnacki still hadn’t led any small group or one-on-one reading lessons.

Instead, her class at Lakewood Elementary spent much of September taking reading tests.

During the first month of the school year, Hojnacki spent a total of 15 hours of class time conducting individual diagnostic reading tests with her 24 students to determine their reading level, during which the rest of the class was not receiving new academic instruction.

She and other third-grade teachers at Lakewood conducted those in-class tests even though their students had also taken another, computerized reading test in September.

The test redundancy illustrates the importance her district and the Michigan Department of Education place on third-grade reading. But because of the time required, Hojnacki didn’t begin teaching reading to her class until October.

In essence, reading skill testing had removed a full month of reading instruction for third-graders who, in May, could be retained in third grade if they are still poor readers. 

“I understand we need data and we need the information,” Hojnacki said. “But it’s a lot of time away from teaching and real learning.”

By mid-October, students in Michael Adams’ third-grade class at Wilcox Elementary in Holt had taken four tests measuring their reading level. “And the kids on the low end have had another test,” Adams said, “so some have had five. It’s brutal. The tests never end.”

The number of tests taken so far this fall by third-graders varies by school district. 

All, at minimum, have taken a computerized test that projects how they fare in reading compared to their peers across the state. Though the specific test varies among schools, that type of test is required of third-graders at the start of the school year and in January.

Some students shrug off the nonstop tests, Adams said, while others “pick up on the third-grade stress.”

“There’s definitely an issue with test fatigue,” Adams said, “where you test the kids so much, they begin to think that all instruction is a test.”

The looming read-or-flunk test cast a shadow over instruction in Pontiac in October. Okagbare bounced from one cluster of desks to another helping students read or pick out books, giving high-fives like a football coach after a touchdown.

“I feel a little more stress this year,” Okagbare said. “I still have to make sure I teach math and science, social studies, all of that. But I feel like I need to concentrate more on reading because of the law.”

Back in Mayville in the thumb, on a day when the high school football team was readying for the homecoming game, third-graders were in a computer lab taking a reading test. Olar teaches reading and social studies, but in recent years, the statewide push to improve reading skills has crimped the lessons she loves to teach about Michigan history.

All four teachers visited by Bridge said the paperwork associated with testing adds hours to their work week. Adams said he sometimes wants to “bang my head against a wall,” while Huron Valley’s Hojnacki described some of the paperwork and testing as “CYA to show the state we’re doing it.”

“All of the testing pulls away from my instructional time,” Hojnacki said, “and I’m not going to have [student reading] growth if I’m not teaching.”

Tara Olar, Mayville Elementary, Mayville

Mayville schools

District enrollment: 4,056

Third-grade reading proficiency: 47 percent

School district's demography:

Poor: 73.5 percent
White: 91.9 percent
Black: 0.8 percent
Hispanic: 5.4 percent
Asian: 0.5 percent
Other race: 1.4 percent

Median household income: $53,137 ($52,668 statewide)

With the first round of tests of the school year complete in early October, third-grade teachers calculated how many of their students were reading below grade level.

Fourteen of the 25 students in Okagbare’s classroom in Pontiac had dangerously low test scores. Eight students in Huron Valley’s Hojnacki’s class were behind.

In Mayville, half of the school’s 38 third-graders were reading below grade level.

Olar splits third-grade teaching duties with another teacher in the one-story school in a village of 950 people. Classroom walls are covered in posters about adjectives and nouns. A list of vocabulary words is pinned to pink paper: atmosphere and astounding under A, meandering and monstrous under M; impertinence under I.

She reads to the class daily (“The Wind in the Willows” on a September day), stopping to ask questions about the characters, and works individually with students who are writing about the book.

Despite her efforts, reading remained a challenge for some of her students, some of whom may be in danger of being retained in grade. “I don’t know if that will benefit these kiddos or not  because of the social aspect (of being left behind),” Olar said. “They’re going to feel bad.”

Olar looked at the folders on her desk and grimaced. One student had dropped two grade levels in reading over the summer. Another is reading at kindergarten level.

“I’m going to have to put extra time into those kiddos who are struggling,” Olar said. 

Holt third-graders pay rapt attention to teacher Michael Adams as he reads a story. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

“I know a lot of people are upset about the third-grade law. It’s putting a lot of pressure on third-grade teachers to pull up their bootstraps and get to work.

 “I think I’m a good teacher,” she said, “but I’m not Superwoman.”

How will parents react?

“You are the best class!” Huron Valley’s Hojnacki exclaimed. “You’re so good, what do I have to do?”

“Pinch yourself!” screamed 24 students sitting cross-legged on the carpet of the third-grade class.

“To see what?”

“To see if you’re dreaming!”

Seven weeks into the school year, the veteran teacher and her crew of 8- and 9-year-olds had developed a comfortable rapport. 

Still, a third of the class was below grade level in reading. 

On an October afternoon, she met with the school’s literacy coach to go over the paperwork Hojnacki will need to present to parents whose third-grade children are struggling to read. The paperwork will lay out the school’s plan to help the students. Hojnacki will also inform parents of the possibility that their children, part of her “dream” class, could be recommended at year-end to repeat third grade if their reading doesn’t improve. 

She worried what will happen to her now-happy class when letters citing below-grade-level reading reach parents.

 “My fear is that parents may put that on their child – ‘You have to read tonight so you don’t have to do third grade again.’ That could be devastating.

“The thing I like most about teaching is not the academics, it’s building someone up, making someone feel good,” Hojnacki said. “You can’t learn if you don’t feel good. And this law isn’t going to make children feel good.”

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Comments

Don
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 8:48am

I read at home a lot !!! BUT the books that the schools forced one to read YUCK!!!!

Nancy
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 9:44am

Was that recently? Currently in my grandchildren’s district they pick their own books to read from a group of books at their level. I volunteered to look up the level and label the books.

Don
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 8:49am

Republicans are out to destroy OUR public school system.... Just look what they did to Detroit!!! The republicans KNOW that educated people would NEVER vote for them!!!

Matt
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 4:55pm

Ah Don, If I'm not mistaken Detroit is run 100% by Democrats, yes 100%. Are you thinking the Republicans switched out a bunch incorrect phoenics lessons for kids? Let me guess, you went to DPS?

Ben W. Washburn
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 10:25pm

Matt:
Don may have a worthwhile point. Maybe, he just didn't give it a chiseled point. I served on the Detroit School Board from 1989 until 1999 as a member of the HOPE reform board. For most of that time, our President was Lawrence (Larry) Patrick. And Larry was 100% Republican! But, consider that neither Democrats nor Republicans have any real answer to what ails our educational system. Together, we may just be making things worse, rather than better. In retrospect, that's one lesson that I take away from our zealous efforts to reform "the system" back then. Together, we've turned education into a political football. What if there is no political solution. What if "we" can only with our political competition just make things worse and worse?
I had three children in the DPS. I, predominately, because my wife was more reluctant, had two of them held back to repeat the 3rd and 5th grades. My son, who was in the fifth grade was dyslexic and struggling. My youngest daughter was also the youngest in her class and was having serious relational problems. In retrospect, however, holding them back did not have a positive result.
My oldest daughter now has two granddaughters, now 7 and 11. But both were reading at the 3rd grade level BEFORE they entered kindergarten. BOTTOM LINE: It's three years too late to begin to tell parents of kindergartners to read to their children. It has to start when they are two years old or less. Strategically, if you really want to make a difference, you need to zero-in on ULTRA EARLY PRE-SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT. This should not be a source of political competition, but rather a
resurgence of political collaboration. We only hamstring that message when we compete to have the best political answer.

Matt
Sun, 10/27/2019 - 3:50pm

Ben, I don't know if you'll see this but I do enjoy you responses!

Chuck Fellows
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 8:56am

The reading test targets a narrow socioeconomic cultural subset of population. Therefore the test (s) is not a valid measure of reading proficiency. Like all tests of this type it ignores context. In addition the high stakes nature of the test stresses children. Cognitive science tells us that stress introduces cortisol which diminishes brain function, especially the ability to learn. Instead of testing regimens put the funds into preschool programs and evaluation of different learning styles and abilities.

Yve
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 9:04am

Reading should a very strong focus in the *first* grade. It will follow from there. WAY back in the day, the kids who had a "reading specialist" teacher in the first grade were in the highest "reading groups" all the way through elementary school. The others were for the most part in the mid and lower groups.

EB
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 9:53am

Poverty or parental involvement may be major reasons why some kids test more poorly than others, but can we use this logic for the entire state, which is in the bottom half of 4th grade reading scores according to https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/profiles/stateprofile?chort=1&sub=RED&.... How is that explained?

Less money spent per pupil?
Fewer competent teachers?
Poor statewide education policies?
A higher level of neurotoxins?

According to https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/natural-environment/pol..., we're also in the bottom half of states with regard to environmental pollutants. I'm wondering if there's correlation between our state's relatively poor performance on reading tests and our relatively poor performance on pollution mitigation.

Jerry
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 10:33am

It’s the Republicans. It’s lack of funding. It’s cultural context. It’s neurotoxins. It’s the wrong test. It’s too much stress and cortisol.

The Public Education Industry is never to blame. They just continually need more money. That will fix everything.

Matt
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 5:10pm

Or maybe it's because the parent(s) don't know how to read or even have any sense of the need to learn and therefor don't provide any encouragement to expend the effort. I'd be willing bet the correlation between single parent families and the failure rate is higher than it is forthe pollution issue you point at. Why is this something that the left has so much trouble ackowledging?

Lisa W.
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 10:00am

My question is that if these students are retained, what will be done differently in their repeat 3rd grade year? If it is the same instruction, how will the outcome be different? Would it be more productive to put them into an alternate intensive literacy program for the second half of the 3rd grade year and not retain them?

Lee
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 10:34am

There's a very clear correlation between love of reading and proficiency in reading. If we focused on getting kids to love reading - with a great variety of books and engaging discussions and activities - instead of testing them to death, I bet the scores would soar. The overuse of testing is killing love of reading.

Stephen Kane
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 12:51pm

No one, with any understanding of how childhood developmental growth occurs would support this ignorant education policy.

Ed Haynor
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 4:19pm

Unfortunately, you make too much sense for many of the people who replied to this commentary by Mr. French, because they lack the necessary knowledge and understanding of childhood developmental growth.

I would include the previous legislature and governor among this group, who created this law, because they also didn't have the necessary knowledge and understanding of childhood developmental growth. What they've done, some would consider child abuse.

NatesAunt
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 8:57am

I agree. This is child abuse. My heart breaks for those 3rd graders that are going to be ridiculed for "failing". This could have been my son who struggled in 2nd and 3rd grade to keep up but is doing fine today.

Jill
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 2:17pm

It's begun already, my 3rd grade grandchild is expected to read a half hour every day including weekends. This is in addition to 30 plus minutes of homework. This is an 8 year old who already spends over 8 hours a day commuting and attending school. The expectation of over an hour of additional work is ridiculous. She cries every night over the workload and now "Hates School" typical of how we treat our children in Michigan.

Jennifer
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 3:28pm

This is due to parents and it should be the parents' job to ensure their kid can read.

Lori Gilbo
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 4:53pm

Testing 1 child could take up to 30 minutes...the rest of your class...some working independently, some not! ALSO, VERY UNFAIR TO MAKE THE STUDENTS TAKE THE TEST ONLINE...KIDS DON'T LIKE TO SCROLL BACK AND FORTH
Give them paper and pencils so it is right there in front of them. No scrolling, just looking back and forth, copying their answers and not worrying about tapping out each letter, spelling of words, and losing their train of thought. 29 years as a 3rd grade teacher.

Dave
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 6:14pm

Only state legislators could come up with a plan to retain children not meeting an aribitrary reading standard. Years of sound educational research show that retention does not work. Moreover, there is considerable evidence it harms children. Nonetheless, our legislators can report back to their constituents that they “did something” about literacy. Too bad it’s doomed to failure.

***
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 6:38pm

Why can't schools send a letter to the parents saying we need your help in having your child learn to read? Read to them each night etc. if you don't have books we can lend them. Some people will say that is setting up an excuse for teachers not doing their job etc. It is probably a no win situation but the importance of parental involvement is critical.

NatesAunt
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 12:39pm

Many years ago my son was having trouble in second grade and the teacher wanted to hold him back. I was given some research by the principal which showed how emotionally harmful it was for a child to be "failed". Children ranked "failing a grade" as worse than losing a parent or wetting their pants. This changed my mind and I kept him in. He outgrew his problems and did fine. I'm completely opposed to this draconian rule. The Michigan Legislature has been in Republican control since 1992 and this smells so bad. Time to vote them out.

Pat
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 7:32pm

My son was "flunked" by the Lansing CC on-line "test" of reading ability when he was in high school so he couldn't take a college course there.. He has a PHD in chemical engineering and read at a 6th grade reading level in the 3rd grade. Please tell me how a "test" will accurately determine children's true "reading level"?