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Which Michigan 3rd-graders will flunk reading? The state has no idea.

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A Michigan law draws a clear line in the academic sand: Students who are at least a year behind grade level in reading skills will have to repeat third grade starting in the 2019-20 school year.

There’s only one problem: Michigan doesn’t know how to identify who flunks yet.

The state's standardized test given to students in third grade through eighth grade, the M-STEP, doesn't assign a grade level to students' reading skills. While students are assigned to four categories based on their test scores (advanced, proficient, partially proficient and not proficient) none of these labels align with a student being deemed a grade or more behind. 

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Seventeen months after the reading retention policy became law, the Michigan Department of Education is working to retrofit the M-STEP to meet the new requirement. Meanwhile, schools don’t yet know the threshold for holding back students, making it difficult to focus intervention efforts on the students most in danger.

“Legislators making these laws really need to understand what is currently being used before imposing a law,” said Michele Farah, literacy consultant for Oakland Intermediate School District. “MDE and now the students and teachers have to retrofit how the current assessment measures meet the requirements of (the law).”

Researchers and educators say that how well a child reads by third grade is a key indicator of future academic success. Michigan, and many other states, have focused efforts on improving early reading skills.

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In October 2016, Michigan passed a law mandating that students who are more than a grade behind in reading skills be retained in third grade. Who flunks and who moves on to fourth grade is supposed to be determined by scores on the M-STEP, taken by third-graders in the spring of third grade year. (Some underperforming students can still advance to fourth grade through other tests, a portfolio of work, or if they are English-language learners.)

The retention policy takes effect in the 2019-20 school year – a three-year delay to give schools time to work to improve early reading skills.

But Michigan’s English language arts scores have been dropping, despite about $80 million spent by the state to improve reading skills. In 2014-15, the first year M-STEP was used in classrooms, 50 percent of third-graders were proficient. Two years later, only 44 percent were proficient.

So early reading skills are a problem. But what percent of early learners are a grade or more behind in those skills? Nobody knows.

The three-year notice schools have to prepare for the retention policy is undercut by the fact that schools still don’t know how the state will determine retention.

The mismatch between the state law and the state test has caused some consternation.

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MDE is developing a methodology to determine what student scores will be the equivalent of being a year behind in reading, said Doug Greer, director of school improvement for Ottawa Intermediate School District. It’s likely that methodology won’t be a hard-and-fast cut score, but a range above and below a student’s actual test score to account for normal day-to-day differences in a student’s score.

Greer said his guess is that the percent of students recommended for retention in third grade will be close to the percent who earn scores in the “not proficient” category, the bottom of the four current scoring categories on M-STEP.

On the 2016-17 test, 30 percent of third-graders across the state scored in that bottom category. If that was the standard for repeating third grade, that would mean a staggering 31,000 children held back, compared to about 700 held back in third grade last year.

More than half (56 percent) of African-American third-graders would have been held back in that year if “not proficient” were the cutoff, and roughly 43 percent of children from economically disadvantaged families.

In Detroit Public Schools, seven of 10 would have been held back; Lansing Public Schools, 47 percent; Saginaw Public Schools, 51 percent.  

On the MDE’s website, a page answering frequently asked questions about the third-grade reading law, says: “The assessment and accountability teams at the MDE are currently working to determine, based on state assessments, what will constitute one (1) grade level behind.”

An email from department spokesperson Bill DiSessa didn’t elaborate. “Cut scores still are being defined by the MDE,” DiSessa wrote.

Ottawa ISD’s Greer said he doesn’t believe school officials are worried about not yet knowing the exact methodology MDE will use to determine which third-graders are held back and which move on. He said districts are giving tests to first-graders to try to identify struggling readers early.

“Schools are doing everything they can to intervene with students so they aren’t even close to the cut score,” Greer said. “The challenge is the changing landscape and how frequently (tests) are changing.”

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But there’s another challenge as well ‒ having to do with those first-grade reading tests.

Different school districts offer different reading tests to first graders, with no guarantee they test the same skills valued by M-STEP, said Nell Duke, a literacy researcher the University of Michigan. “If we’re trying to guess on first-grade performance who is on track to be retained or not retained in third-grade, we need instruments aligned with the M-STEP,” Duke said.

“We don’t know what we don’t know yet,” admits John Helmholdt, executive director of communications for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “There’s a huge learning curve and every district is scrambling with implementation.”

Helmholdt suggested the retention law may have to be tweaked before it goes into effect two school years from now.

“Like with any law with sweeping ramifications, there will be some wrinkles,” Helmholdt said. “I think we’d be the first to say there are going to be needed legislative fixes.”

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