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How many students will third-grade reading law hold back? No one's sure yet.

Pile of children's books
Starting this fall, Michigan third graders who are a grade behind or more in their reading proficiency could be forced to repeat a grade.

Read at grade level or you could get held back. Those are the options for Michigan third graders starting next year.

That's thanks to a 2016 law aimed at boosting the state's educational performance. It makes Michigan one of 16 states with similar laws that hold students back if they aren't reading by the third grade. 

Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently called this law “destructive,” and promised to do everything she can to stop it.  

Michelle Richard is vice president of Public Sector Consultants. She explains that the legislation requires school districts to offer extra support to students who struggle with reading. Districts now must assess student reading in earlier grades, and create plans that connect children with the interventions they need to get reading by the third grade. 

Schools across the state have already started to implement many elements of the law. But starting next year, they will be required to start holding kids back if they are a grade level or more behind on reading at the end of third grade.  

The process of holding a child back, otherwise known as “retention,” isn’t automatic. Richard says there are a number of exemptions, including if a student participates in a special education program, has been retained at a previous grade level, or if the parents or the local superintendent determine that moving on to fourth grade is “in the best interest of the student.”

Supporters of the law argue that it “creates the urgency to push parents, students, districts, [and] teachers” to gather the necessary resources to help students become effective readers, Richard says. But opponents maintain that holding kids back is not the best way to get them reading at grade level. Their argument, she says, is this: 

“If third grade didn’t work for you the first time around, and you didn’t master the reading skills that you needed, what good does it do to have you repeat the same program—potentially the same teacher, in some of our smaller districts—one more year?” 

Richard’s biggest question moving forward has to do with how the state will determine which students get held back. Under the law, students will be eligible for retention if they are “one or more grade levels behind,” but what that means is still unclear.

“The statewide assessment — commonly known as the M-STEP — doesn’t score students based on how many grade levels ahead or behind you are. So everyone has been watching for guidance from the Michigan Department of Education to help articulate and explain what it means to be one grade level behind,” Richard explained. 

Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul has similar concerns about the new law.

She says that though parents in her district are supportive of making sure their kids are reading by third grade, they are also a bit confused about who is monitoring the execution of the law, and what options they have when it comes to accepting — or declining — the district's recommendation for their child. 

The schools in Caamal Canul’s district are getting ready for the upcoming change by notifying parents and preparing assessments to monitor student progress.

“The last thing we want to do is recommend a student for retention without having sufficient data to support that recommendation,” Caamal Canul explained.

Caamal Canul says when she testified about this law before a Michigan Senate subcommittee, she told the lawmakers there that “vision without implementation is hallucination.”

“While I understand the moral imperative of making sure that students can read by the end of third grade, I think the whole idea of implementing it really escaped the logisticians,” Caamal Canul explained. 

Still, Caamal Canul says she isn't that worried about the impact of the law on next year's third-graders in Lansing Public Schools. Based on early information, she says she doesn’t anticipate the district will need to hold any students back as a result of the law.  

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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