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Lawmakers, educators work toward compromise on bills that would flunk some 3rd graders

School student in Japan reading a book outside
Creative Commons
Students who can't read proficiently by third grade would be held back under new legislation.

Lawmakers are working out the details of a proposal that would flunk Michigan students who can’t readat “proficient” levels by the end of the third grade.

Many in the education community are opposed to the legislation, including The Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers.

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies supports it.

But Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt says his district is working with some lawmakers to try to push a compromise.

“We appreciate the spotlight on this issue. It’s obviously important to student achievement,” Helmholdt said.

Studies show students learn to read through third grade, but afterwards rely on their reading skills to learn other subjects.

One in three Michigan third graders does not test "proficient" in reading. That’s based on the latest standardized test scores. Students are given a score between 1 and 4. A score of 1 or 2 is considered proficient in reading, while students who score 3 or 4 are not proficient.

In Grand Rapids Public Schools, 52% of third-graders are not proficient.

Helmholdt says if the state offered expanded preschool, a common statewide assessment for each grade level leading up to third grade,  professional development for current and future teachers – including intervention strategies to help students who fall behind – it could work.

“We need to make sure that the state is putting the appropriate dollars that are necessary and that all of these systems in a comprehensive manner are in place. If that’s there that might get us to a 'yes' in support of mandatory retention,” Helmholdt said, “It’s a fine line. If we have exhausted all other things, then frankly we think it should be on the table.”

Helmholdt says the district's potential support of the bills greatly depends on how they and other school legislation – like a replacement for the state’s standardized tests, common core curriculum, and Gov. Rick Snyder’s call for more preschool investment –come together and are implemented. There’s also talk of implementing year-round schooling.

“There are a lot of moving parts. You’ve got different pieces of legislation that are moving in silos. They must be coordinated. There has to be consistency and uniformity in how we approach this. It goes beyond third-grade reading. There’s other things that the state's working on that are just – they seem to be disjointed and they’re not aligned around all the moving pieces and parts,” Helmholdt said.

The bills allow exemptions for English-language learners, students with disabilities, students who have a portfolio that otherwise proves proficiency, or students who can prove proficiency through an alternative reading test.

The bills call on Michigan’s Department of Education to do more to make sure students can read by the end of third grade. MDE would develop or recommend reading programs for strategies that focus on diagnostic evaluation, early intervention, tutoring, and mentoring.

MDE is also tasked with running a pilot program next school year and coming up with a process for third-graders to retake the assessment if they don’t score high enough. The bills would prohibit students from being held back in third grade more than two years.

State Rep. Amanda Price, R-Park Township, introduced part of the current legislation in the fall.At first, she got some major pushbackfrom the education community.

“From my constituents at church or my neighbors, (I heard) ‘No, you’re doing the right thing, this needs to happen.’ The other reaction is that, you’re going to hurt the child’s self-esteem if you’re holding them back,” Price said.

“You have to decide which is the better course for kids," Price said. "Is it having them read or going through their whole high school or later grades not having that skill, which builds on everything else?" 

My colleague, Dustin Dwyer with Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity project, weighed the evidence for and against mandatory retention. If you’re interested, you can find lots of information by checking out his article here. http://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/should-we-flunk-third-graders-who-cant-pass-standardized-test-heres-what-research-says

Since Price introduced the law, it’s been changed slightly and tie-barred to a second bill introduced by State Rep. Thomas Stallworth, D-Detroit, that includes more support systems before third grade.

Despite the initial pushback, Price says she’s committed to making it law.

"I think of this as a game-changer," Price said in a recent interview.

She hopes the focus on reading will improve subject comprehension, and in turn, improve a student’s success later in school and life. She also hopes that the potential for a student to be held back a grade will prompt more parents to be invested in their child’s ability to read, to read to them at home and make sure students don't lose ground over the summer holiday.

“We really need to make sure that parents are heavily engaged in this reading effort. I don’t know how to do that as a legislator. I don’t know how to make parents do something that is so important. But  if we do this assessment piece and the intervention piece, I’m hoping that if a parent realizes their child is not proficient that they would be involved in that intervention,” Price said.

The bills have already passed through the education committee and are awaiting action on the House floor.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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