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MI Senate advances bill that would eliminate retention from third-grade reading law

Johnny McClung via Unsplash

A Michigan Senate committee has voted to move forward with a bill that would change the state’s third grade reading law.

Senate Bill 12 has one purpose: to remove the expectation that schools retain third grade students who aren’t reading at grade level by that time, as measured by a state test they take in the spring of that year.

The committee heard testimony from education experts who said there’s no evidence that retention boosts reading skills or academic achievement. But they said it does often to lead to a host of other negative effects on students.

Holt Public Schools third grade teacher Leah Porter was last year’s Michigan Teacher of the Year. She pleaded with lawmakers to remove the retention requirement.

“It will affirm to parents, children, and educators all across the state that we see kids as human beings and not giving them a punitive, very harmful long-term component to their educational career because of one snapshot,” Porter told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.

The bill would leave in place other aspects of the third-grade reading law, such as additional supports for struggling readers.

“If a third-grade student is flagged as not proficient in third grade reading standards, all the supports that student would have received repeating the third grade will now be extended to the student in their fourth-grade year,” said Senator Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), the bill’s sponsor.

State Superintendent Michael Rice said that’s important. He said research bolsters the idea that those additional supports were improving Michigan students’ reading scores before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and before third-grade retention became the default requirement.

“The read-by-grade-three law simply requires too much time spent justifying a determination of retention or not, at the expense of focus on the children's literacy needs,” Rice said.

“Let’s eliminate the punitive, and lean into the research-based and evidence-based approaches to improve literacy in the state.”

Katharine Strunk, a professor of economics and education at Michigan State University, said the retention requirement is also not evenly applied. She said Black students were more likely not to score as proficient on the reading test, but also more likely to be held back than white students who also didn’t meet the benchmarks. Strunk also noted that due to some leeway within the current law, some districts are holding students back at higher rates than others.

“So the district that you enroll in, which is based on where you live, determines the likelihood of being retained,” Strunk said. “And that's not what we think about as an equitable way to implement a policy.”

Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) was the sole vote against moving the bill out of committee. He questioned whether “now is the time to do anything to weaken our standards, or limit accountability, or take any tools out of our toolbox here.”

“I'm also concerned with schools’ abilities to provide these effective interventions,” Damoose added, noting a shortage of educators and trained reading intervention coaches in some schools.

The bill ultimately passed out of the Education Committee and now moves on to the Senate floor, where it appears to have the support of the new Democratic majority in the Legislature.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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