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Detroit schools have "no intention" of holding back third graders struggling to read

Child reading
User Melanie
Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The head of Detroit Public Schools said that the district will circumvent a law requiring third graders who fail the reading portion of the end-of-year standardized test to repeat the academic year.

Detroit schools Superintendent Nickolai Vitti took issue with the “Read by Grade Three” law in which schools are to recommend that third graders who struggle to show reading proficiency should repeat a grade, saying that retention decisions should be made by parents and teachers.

“We have no intention of retaining students solely based on your third grade test, on the M-STEP, or on any test, for that matter,” Vitti said during a school board meeting on Tuesday. 

The school district sent letters to parents and guardians whose third grade students fell below the standard set by the state on the M-STEP, as required by law. But Vitti said the decision to retain a student would be determined by a student’s parents and teachers. If they disagree on whether or not a student should repeat the third grade, then the school principal will cast the deciding vote. 

“Overall,” Vitti said, “we do not believe retention is the right policy, so we are making that a parent-teacher-principal decision moving into next school year.”

The leaders of schools in Dearborn, Novi, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools near Grand Rapids, and Marshall Public Schools near Battle Creek will take a similar approach as Detroit public schools, according to Bridge Michigan. 

Districts that are side-stepping the mandate to retain students are relying on the exemptions included into the law for English-language learners, special education students, students who recently changed schools, and those who have already repeated a grade. 

School districts that are finding ways to circumvent the law have the support of Governor Whitmer. She launched an effort in January alongside education and community-focused nonprofit organizations to help inform parents about their options to appeal 3rd grade retention, which she called “ill-informed.” 

More than 35 states and the District of Columbia have laws that either recommend or require retention for students who are not meeting reading benchmarks by the third grade. The policy is based on research that indicates far lower high school graduation rates for those who aren’t reading proficiently by the third grade. However, competing data indicates that retention also lowers future educational attainment for students. 

The Read by Third Grade retention law was passed under Governor Rick Snyder in 2016. A bill that would halt the retention portion of the law was sent to the Michigan Senate for consideration last month. 

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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